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I guess even a traitor can be changed by the love of a good woman... a woman who can put you in a scissor head lock!!
on August 2, 2010
THE REBEL is one of those rare martial arts pictures in that the story content isn't just there to frame the action sequences. The plot is straightforward but has substance to it, and the three lead actors are given intense parts to play. It's a Colonial period piece, set in 1922 in French-occupied Vietnam, and the Frenchies were so cruelly subjugating that the impoverished peasants were forced to rebel. And is it me or does the white man's burden tend to cheese off all the other nationalities? The froggies were so foul back then that, in the audio commentary, Asian cinema expert Bey Logan, informed that Frenchmen yet linger in Vietnam today, cracks a joke: "If I was French I would have left town."
Le Van Cuong (Johnny Tri Nguyen) is suave and French-educated. He wears stylish white suits and he's an agent of the colonial government, seeking to snuff out seeds of insurrection. He works for the sadistic, power-mad security chief Sy (Dustin Nguyen), and while they're not exactly friends they seem to work well together. Until, of course, a beautiful girl drives a wedge between them. The girl is Vo (Veronica Ngo, a.k.a. Thanh Van Ngo) and she's the fiery daughter of the rebel leader. When Vo is captured, Cuong helps to spring her from prison and off they go on the run, pursued by a venomous Sy and his minions.
This picture apparently shattered film box offices in Vietnam, and, sure, why not? THE REBEL boasts polished production values which lend to the viewer a definite sense of place and time, Vietnam circa 1922. THE REBEL was done under a modest budget (although this budget is huge by Vietnamese standards), and maybe you'd be startled to know that they only had two vintage cars to work with and that they used these two cars exhaustively throughout the film, under several guises. Shot heavily on location in Vietnam, there are many beautiful countryside sceneries to soak in. And the acting is really solid, maybe even surprisingly solid. Johnny Tri Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American martial artist and a Hollywood stunt man, except that he shows real promise as the conflicted main lead. He easily demonstrates that he's just more than a guy who can kick all pretty. Having said that, his aerial moves are really nice.
The bad guy is played - and don't laugh - by Dustin Nguyen, he of 21 JUMP STREET fame. And I said don't laugh because Dustin Nguyen exudes a twisted and surprisingly menacing presence. His character makes use of the "Iron Shirt" discipline (Dustin's own description) which renders his flesh impenetrable to blades and blows.
But the real find is Thanh Van Ngo. A singer-model who had no prior background in martial arts, Veronica trained for several grueling months before shooting the film. When you see her on screen she looks like she's been kicking people viciously in the face all her life. Veronica Ngo has got amazing screen presence, the looks, and the martial arts skill, and I don't think there's been a male and female lead couple this badasss since Jackie Chan teamed up with Michelle Yeoh in POLICE STORY 3: SUPERCOP. I was astounded to learn that Veronica broke her foot during filming and, in some scenes, had to prop herself up on an apple crate.
Okay, there are spots when the film drags. But the story overall is compelling and I've mentioned the good acting, and there's enough nationalistic fervor here that I could totally see why this was big whoop in Vietnam. The martial arts is superb. The cast barely does any wirework. Johnny Tri Nguyen and Veronica Ngo do their own stunts (not counting when Veronica broke her foot and had to have a walking double). Johnny Nguyen incorporates Muay Thai and wushu techniques and makes it a point to feature moves from the Vietnamese martial arts discipline of Vovinam. Nguyen's aerial moves are from the Vovinam arsenal, and I love Veronica's signature move which is this scissor headlock she imposes on her opponent with her legs before she torques him to the ground, and in the middle of this there's this neat thing she does where she spreads her arms wide like a butterfly. Another thing the film does well is maintaining a realism in terms of how combat would go when people bring guns to a martial arts fight. There are overwhelming casualties when folks try to swarm armed soldiers, and yet it's done believably whenever an unarmed guy does manage to close in on the guy(s) with the firearms.
By the way, disgustingly, that was a real eye in that one scene.
This Dragon Dynasty release comes with two DVDs. Disc 1 has the feature presentation and the quite entertaining audio commentary from stars Johnny Tri Nguyen, Dustin Tri Nguyen, and Veronica Ngo, and Asian cinema expert Bey Logan who asks all the right questions. These guys were having fun recording this.
Disc 2 has:
- The Making Of featurette - in which we learn, among other fascinating things, that the blood splatter on Johnny Tri Nguyen's face caused by his shooting of an assassin is actually caused by some guy off camera, on cue, spitting red liquid into his face (00:37:37 minutes)
- Three in-depth interviews: "Empty Hand, Noble Heart" - the interview with Johnny Tri Nguyen (00:31:49 minutes); "Cry for Freedom" - an interview with Veronica Ngo (00:33:28); and "The Dark Destroyer" - an interview with Dustin Tri Nguyen (00:35:22)
- "One Man Army" is a martial arts demonstration by Johnny Tri Nguyen as he talks about and recreates some of the best Vovinam moves from the movie (00:03:18)
- "Iron Jacket" is a deleted scene from the Preview Cut of THE REBEL which has a shirtless Dustin Nguyen going thru some form of kata (00:00:41)
- A Behind-The-Scenes Gallery (with eleven brief featurettes) focusing on the film's action/stunt sequences as the cast & crew work out the logistics. The "Take One for the Team" clip shows one stunt guy getting repeatedly bloodied by Vernoica Ngo during the jail break scene.