Stories about stunt men writing, producing and starring in their own movies -- movies directed by their own brothers, no less -- do not exactly inspire confidence. What do muscle heads know about writing scripts? Telling stories? Making films? The fear is that you'll end up with nothing but a pointless, thoughtless vanity project full of flexing biceps and little else and history tells us that those fears are not entirely unfounded. Thankfully Vietnamese-American martial artist Johnny Nguyen is far from typical and The Rebel -- the writing-directing-starring project that inspired such a fresh appreciation of his native culture that he has returned to Vietnam to continue living and working there -- is a quality piece of work that bears none of the weaknesses that would label it a vanity project.
A period piece set during the French occupation of Vietnam The Rebel stars Nguyen as a member of the Vietnamese secret police working in cooperation with the French occupation to root out and suppress native rebel elements. Spattered with blood from a slain would-be assassin and confronted with the brutal torture of the captured daughter of the rebel leader by his fellow agents, Nguyen begins to question whether he is on the right side of this battle …
While the masses may not know Nguyen by name they almost certainly have seen him in action. A highly sought after martial artist and stunt man in Hollywood he has supplied key stunt work in the Spider-Man films and other titles such as Serenity and his face is well familiar to martial arts fans worldwide thanks to a key roles opposite the likes of Jet Li and Tony Jaa. Serving as writer, producer and lead performer here a lot of weight is on the man's shoulders, The Rebel standing as a film that will succeed only to the extent that Nguyen himself succeeds and he is strong on all fronts. On a performance level native Viet speakers tell me that his American accent is quite pronounced but he possesses undeniable screen charisma and turns in a strong, nuanced performance. He is also -- unsurprisingly -- very strong on the martial arts front, turning in a number of stunning fight sequences that showcase a variety of specifically Vietnamese martial arts moves, the flying scissor kick take downs (both legs wrapped around the neck of the target who is then thrown head first to the ground) being a particular favorite.
The fight scenes were definitely an expected strength of the picture, Nguyen's acting a satisfying confirmation of the talent hinted at elsewhere. The surprising strength, however, is the man's work as a screenwriter. This shouldn't be overstated, the script isn't going to win Nguyen any awards but it does show a remarkable dedication to story and character over spectacle. The film boasts an impressive array of strong characters and situations, each of them fully developed with the tensions and connections between them driving things forward. With the focus on story first the action is used purely to bolster the narrative, the action serves the purpose of the story rather than the story existing to get you to the next stunt sequence. Thanks to this unwavering focus The Rebel feels more like a historical drama that happens to involve a great deal of fighting than it does a fight film played out in period costumes -- a major strength of the film and a distinction that a great many more experienced productions fail to understand.
While much of the film hangs on Johnny's talents there is talent to account for in other directions as well. The support cast headed by Dustin Nguyen -- no relation -- is strong across the board with Dustin, like Johnny, obviously relishing the chance to step into a feature role after slogging away in Hollywood's Asian-American purgatory that sees Asian performers stuck permanently in support roles and bit parts regardless of their level of talent. At the helm is Charlie Nguyen -- Johnny's brother -- who shows an excellent sense of pacing, a keen eye for composition, an assured hand shooting both action and dramatic sequences, and smarts at the editing console. Making Charlie's life a good deal simpler are the film's stunning locations: the crew found a Vietnamese town left untouched since the 1920's and they use it to astounding effect. The film is simply gorgeous to look at.
The Rebel is a grand experiment, a group of talented friends and family raising their own funds and returning to the homeland that most of them had seen seldom since their childhood to explore their own heritage while trying to make a film. They've succeeded in both. The Rebel is a very strong film, one that establishes the Nguyens as a seriously talented brother act and hopefully heralds the beginning of a long partnership.