The Rebel is set against the backdrop of roaring anti-French rebellions unfolding all over Vietnam in 1922 under colonial French ruling. Le Van Cuong (Johnny Tri Nguyen)is a young secret service agent assigned by the French to track and destroy the rebels. Needless to say that he is seen as a traitor by many natives. Although being a highly skilled agent, Cuong is constantly traumatised by the sea of Vietnamese blood he has spilled. During his tracking attempt, Cuong has to kill a young boy and begins to question his loyalty. Cuong then captures Vo Thanh Thuy, the daughter of the rebel leader and also a lionhearted freedom fighter herself. He is moved by her relentless patriotism, and helps her escape when the torture goes beyond boundaries. He even proceeds to turn over a new leaf and becomes a freedom fighter, essentially fighting against his cruel ex-partner, Sy (Dustin Nguyen).
Predictably, the film has a number of familiar story points bordering on cliché: the brother-like relationship turns sour, the two enemies on the opposite ends fall for each other, the sadistic evil French master of a prisoner camp, the sweeping music etc. Fortunately, the shortcomings in originality are compensated by well-paced storytelling and martial arts sequences which are very well choreographed. Each fight is timed perfectly and flows naturally from the plots, and they are swift and straight to the point. I especially like this straightforward approach, as it gives this history film a lean edge. The glorious fight scenes should come as no surprise, as Johnny Tri Nguyen is a Hollywood stuntman with stuntwork in several high-profile films to his credit: the man inside the Spiderman suit in Sam Raimi’s first two movies, The Protector, Jarhead, Serenity and Collateral.
However, The Rebel is far from being just another action-packed film with a mediocre plot. Director Charlie Nguyen somehow manages to give equal consideration to character development. Van makes for an arresting heroine, displaying both beauty, bravery and a sense of being real as she brawls her way through the screen. Dustin Nguyen, who was celebrated for his role in another Vietnamese themed movie called Little Fish, also turns in a nice performance as memorable antagonist, whose indestructibility is even more intriguing due to the fact that it is never addressed. As for Johnny Tri Nguyen, I cannot say that he nails his role, but for a stuntman he is able to pull off his lines without cheese or feeling forced.
In addition to the breathtaking martial arts angles, the screenwriter team also weaves epic historical setting into The Rebel. The end result is a safe martial arts film with the underdeveloped theme of patriotism and sleek romance but definitely enough to appeal to foreign distributors. The Rebel is an action film at its core, and there is nothing wrong with taking a light approach to serious subjects, but in case of The Rebel, it makes you craving for more. Certainly there are far better action opuses than The Rebel, but it is after all a decent enough picture. Touted as the most expensive film in Vietnamese history, The Rebel shows that it is bigger than its $1.5 million budget and its producers have obviously spent the money wise.