Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Johnny Tri Nguyen, Dustin Nguyen, Veronica Ngo
Director: Charlie Nguyen
Audio: Vietnamese 5.1, English 5.1
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, widescreen
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Features: Commentary, three interviews, making-of featurettes, deleted scene, trailers
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: September 30, 2008

You don’t think they’re dying for you?

Film *** ½

Not many Vietnamese films achieve international recognition.  The few which do generally revolve around American involvement in the Vietnam War, but The Rebel (2006) is an exception.  This film instead focuses on the struggle between Vietnamese anti-colonial rebels and French occupational forces in Vietnam circa the 1920’s, a time when international imperialism was still very much a global trend.  Even more uniquely for a Vietnamese film, The Rebel is also a roller-coaster ride of a martial arts film, too!

This action-filled extravaganza was the pet project of star Johnny Tri Nguyen, who dreamed of creating a uniquely martial arts epic set in Vietnam.  Nguyen is perhaps most familiar to western audiences as one of the villains in The Protector (starring Ong Bak’s Tony Jaa), but sports fans might remember him as a former Pan American Games gold medalist, too.  Nguyen wrote the script for The Rebel, drawing from his own father’s experiences as an anti-colonial rebel, and also choreographed much of the film’s eventual fight sequences, drawing from his own extensive background in martial arts.

The Rebel’s other lead is perhaps a more familiar name - Dustin Nguyen.  He was formerly a cast member on TV’s popular 21 Jump Street and was especially recruited by Johnny Nguyen (no relations) to be the film’s chief villain.  In The Rebel, Dustin Nguyen plays a seemingly invincible human terminator type, a collaborator with the French but also a man frustrated by the need to kowtow to his dislikable French superiors; he will ultimately follow his own agenda, even if that entails disposing of a distasteful French commander or two.

The lead actress, Veronica Ngo, was once a 2nd runner-up in the 2000 Miss Vietnam beauty pageant and a singer-model, too.  Raised in Norway and lacking any martial arts training, Veronica Ngo certainly did not seem a logical choice to portray a native Vietnamese female rebel.  But, she demonstrated an uncanny ability to learn the required stunts and action moves for her scenes and eventually performed all of her own stunts herself, an admirable achievement considering the intense amount of martial arts fighting demanded of all three leads in this film.

In The Rebel, Johnny Tri Nguyen plays Le Van Cuong, a collaborator and double agent with the French forces who has begun to harbor some resentment over killing his own countrymen.  His immediate supervisor, Sy (Dustin Nguyen), is responsible for destroying rebel strongholds which resist French rule in the region.  When a young female rebel, Vo Thanh Thuy (Veronica Ngo), makes an assassination attempt on a high-ranking French official and is captured, Sy senses an opportunity to infiltrate a rebel base.

Soon, with Cuong’s help, Thuy makes an unlikely escape from prison.  At first, she is distrustful of Cuong’s intent and rightfully so, as it is Sy’s hope that the female rebel will unwittingly lead Cuong (and Sy’s trailing French foreign legion forces) back to the rebel hideout and their leader, Thuy’s own father.

Cuong and Thuy seek refuge in a mining labor camp, at which time Cuong reaches a spiritual crisis.  He begins to recognize the extent of French brutality and oppression of the Vietnamese people and begins to re-evaluate his own allegiance.  Inevitably, as the title of this film might suggest, Cuong must make a fateful decision about whether to remain in the services of the French or whether to follow Thuy in her struggle against foreign oppression.

Aside from a romantic sub-plot between Cuong and Thuy, The Rebel is basically non-stop action.  From the assassination attempt to the prison outbreak, a hopeless battle between elderly rural villagers and armed soldiers, an ambush of a government train, and the grand finale itself, The Rebel provides an awe-inspiring display of tremendous acrobatic stunts and fist-flying mastery to rival that seen in any Wushu kung fu flick.  Better yet, The Rebel does not rely on computer effects or fake wire-gadgetry; this is old-school martial arts at its finest, albeit pumped up to 21st-century adrenaline levels.

On its release, The Rebel received an enthusiastic reception from initially skeptical Native Vietnamese audiences.  There had been some concern over whether the film, despite being the most expensive Vietnamese film ever produced, would do justice to the plight of the Vietnamese people in the early twentieth-century.  But The Rebel does indeed capture the essence of the people’s nationalism and touches upon the same anti-colonial sentiments that appear regularly in period kung fu flicks from Hong Kong, too.  That said, The Rebel should not be mistaken for a political film.  It is at heart an action film and a very entertaining one at that!  Here’s to hoping that more martial arts films as satisfying as The Rebel emerge from Vietnam!

Video *** ½

This film is presented in a color, widescreen format.  Images are sharp and colorful without bleed, an important consideration given the film’s innumerable rapid-fire fist-fight and action sequences.  There are a few instances of dust specks here and there but nothing to be concerned about.

Audio ****

Audio is presented in Vietnamese or an optional English soundtrack.  The sound quality is quite bombastic and complements the action sequences well.

Features ****

The Rebel is released as a two-disc set.  Disc One contains previews for several action films, including Hard-Boiled and Fist of Legend and a cast commentary track featuring Johnny Tri Nguyen, Veronica Ngo, and Dustin Nguyen.  The film itself is also located on Disc One. 

Disc Two holds the remaining supplemental features, in English (mostly) or Vietnamese with optional subtitles.

The first supplemental feature is an Interview Gallery which offers three separate interviews (in English) with the film’s lead actors.  In the Johnny Tri Nguyen interview (32 min.), the former Pan American Games gold medalist discusses his martial arts training, his experience in acting, and the film production and fighting style in The Rebel.  In the Veronica Ngo interview (33 min.), the former singer-model discusses the difficult physical training required for her role.  Amazingly, her only significant injury was not from a fight sequence but from a freak accident (a falling camera!) that broke her foot.  In the Dustin Nguyen interview (35 min.), the former 21 Jump Street star recalls his early years as an Asian-American, his martial arts training, his TV career, and the motivation for his character in The Rebel; he also recounts various mishaps and scary moments from the film’s production.  All three interviews are accompanied by excerpts from The Rebel (and The Protector) as well as numerous clips from fight rehearsal footage.

The Behind-the-Scenes Gallery contains a series of short making-of clips divided into three sub-sections.  Four short clips in the “Trained to Kill” subsection reveal how Johnny Tri Nguyen and Dustin Nguyen work out fight choreography for the film’s climactic battle.  Five clips in the “On the Waterfront” section focus on more fight scenes between Johnny Tri Nguyen and a mob of armed combatants; in one clip, a poor stunt guy endures multiple takes of being hit by a moving car and tossed aside like a ragdoll.  No wire-fu or CGI effects here...just the real painful ordeal!  In fact, most of the stunt guys in these clips don’t seem to mind shedding real blood.  In “Jail Break,” two short clips feature rehearsal choreography for Thanh Van Ngo’s prison escape.

The “One Man Army” featurette (3 min.) is a cool martial arts demonstration of actual fight choreography from the film by Johnny Tri Nguyen and two stunt doubles.

“Iron Jacket” is a very short deleted scene of Dustin Nguyen exercising and flexing his muscles.  This scene is mentioned in the Dustin Nguyen interview included on this disc.

The last extra is a true making-of featurette (37 min.) which plays out like a video diary of the film’s production.  It is comprised almost entirely of grainy on-set footage, not the usual post-production promotional interviews.  This featurette mostly ignores the martial arts sequences and concentrates instead on revealing how the cast & crew go about handling the inevitable little crises which pop up in any production.  The location shooting travels around Vietnam from Hoi An and Lang Son to the Thai Nguyen labor camp site.  On a lighter note, comic relief is provided by actual villagers who substituted as extras, plus an amusingly lamentable song from one of the crews about the woes of filmmaking.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Johnny Tri Nguyen was a stunt double for the Green Goblin in Spiderman.


Hong Kong apparently does not have a monopoly on quality martial arts films after all.  The Vietnamese film The Rebel is a top-notch action film that should please any kung fu film fan!

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