‘Rebel’ Review: A surprisingly effective anti-radicalization actioner

If the unmarked enemy planes, mirrored visors, and carefully evasive language of Joseph Kosinksi’s Top Gun: Maverick tell us anything, it’s that Hollywood has learned to avoid political idiosyncrasies in delivering terrific blockbuster entertainment. So one can be forgiven for coming to “Rebel” with hackles raised and a red alert, as it milks Hollywood action-movie thrills (and even a few surreal musical numbers) from the highly charged scenario of a young Belgian being recruited into a Syrian ISIS cell . But the directing team Adil & Bilall (“Bad Boys For Life,” the upcoming “Batgirl”) realize, with unabashed sincerity, their foolish ambition to make a serious cautionary tale in the form of a flashy thrill-seeker. You might even start cheering for “Rebel,” much like a circus elephant dashing across a canned minefield, managing with surprising dexterity to cover a considerable distance without tearing itself to pieces.

It all seems to be a battle on the home front at first as schoolboy Nassim (Amir El Arbi) is summoned from his classroom in Belgium by his mother Leila (an excellent, tough Lubna Azabal) with devastating news. An ISIS propaganda video has leaked online showing Nassim’s adoring older brother Kamal (Aboubakr Bensaihi) who felt compelled to flee to Syria to “do good things”, take part in an execution squad and punch a kneeling prisoner in the back of the head shoot the deadpan dispassion of a zealot.

As news of Kamal’s radicalization quickly spreads through the school and community, Nassim and Leila are shunned. That makes an already wayward and confused Nassim the perfect target for a sneakily charismatic local recruiter (Fouad Hajji, smiling and vile) who expertly manipulates the boy’s desire to believe his brother is still somehow a hero. Meanwhile, the narrative jumps into flashback mode to detail the good intentions, no-choice scenarios, blackmail, and coercion that got the basically decent Kamal to this horrific point when his initial humanitarian mission to support rescue operations in the bombed out Syrian cities are corrupted by the advance of IS and then brutally compromised. All of this context is meant to inspire sympathy for an apparent devil, but it’s also loosely plausible in its moment-to-moment details. We are reminded that not all foreign jihadists banded together with murderous intent, and that among the first victims of ISIS were in many cases those whom ISIS chose to absorb.

Throughout its 135-minute stretch, “Rebel” remains dynamic, weaving a variety of standard genre elements into its many subplots. Some paint the contours of the serious drama better than others: Leila’s harrowing, perilous journey to Syria to retrieve her child is tense and believable. But a love scene on the run involving Kamal and Noor (Tara Abboud), the enslaved woman he’s been assigned as his wife, strains credibility, and the film’s razor-sharp ending feels like a twist too far.

Still, there’s considerable skill in how the directors (known individually as Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah) craft set pieces from scenarios we’ve all grown deaf to. Aided by Robrecht Heyvaert’s elegant action camerawork, and particularly Frédéric Thoraval’s astute, biting editing, motorcycle chases rattle with immediacy while moral dilemmas are escalated to a frenetic pitch in a split second. Kamal, rescuing an injured child from a ruined house, runs through a street that’s exploding on all sides – a virtuoso use of the kind of dizzying aesthetic typically employed when Tom Cruise with a Macguffin on a flash drive in front of you villain runs away.

Even bolder, the plot slips almost imperceptibly into elevated register at several points throughout the film, when one character or another suddenly becomes the star of their own tightly choreographed musical. Kamal’s early political awakening is brought to us in the form of a rap video erupting in a kebab shop: it’s supposed to be absurd, and yet it somehow works, especially since it plunges us straight into the righteous anger and frustration of a young man whose motivations for would be more comforting to us if they remained impenetrably monstrous.

Those confidently offbeat flourishes, however, can’t quite hide how the screenplay, co-written by the directors with Jan Van Dyck and Kevin Meul, is otherwise precision-crafted to bring a clean and suspenseful ending to the moral morass of extremist terrorism Narrative, without nuances. In “Rebel” it becomes very clear who the real villains are (the ISIS leadership, the psychopaths who have banded together less for ideological reasons than for the fun of killing, and the brokers who funnel fresh meat into their slaughterhouse, mainly for money ) and who the victims are (everyone else).

But the film’s bulldozer pomp in presenting complex themes in the bluntly simplistic language of the action film – one that the young male viewers most vulnerable to the fallacious seductions of extremist ideologies not only understand, but may even seek as entertainment – could ultimately be his main virtue. Perhaps an effective battering ram is worth more than a dozen intelligent, subtle little dramas set before a much smaller art-house audience made up of the very demographic least likely to ever become a target for Islamic fundamentalist recruitment. The film is personal for Adil & Bilall. Both claim to have known young men like Kamal and Nassim in Belgium, and with “Rebel” they seem to have made the anti-radicalization film that they believe may have changed these boys’ minds – that is, the anti-radicalization film Radicalization film that these guys may have actually seen.

https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/rebel-review-1235279944/ ‘Rebel’ Review: A surprisingly effective anti-radicalization actioner

Charles Jones

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