If the unmarked enemy aircraft, 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 specifics in the delivery of grandstanding blockbuster entertainment. So one can be forgiven for coming to “Rebel” with hackles raised and offence-o-meters on red alert, as it milks Hollywoodish action-movie thrills (and even a few surreal musical numbers) from the highly charged scenario of one young Belgian’s recruitment into a Syrian ISIS cell. But there’s an unabashed sincerity in how directing team Adil & Bilall (“Bad Boys For Life,” the upcoming “Batgirl”) realize their foolhardy ambition to make a serious-minded cautionary tale in the guise of a flashy thrill-ride. You might even start to root for “Rebel,” rather like you would a circus elephant can-canning across a minefield, and managing with surprising dexterity to go quite some distance without blowing itself to bits.
At first it seems like it will be a home-front battle, as schoolboy Nassim (Amir El Arbi) is summoned from his classroom in Belgium by his mother Leila (an excellent, tough Lubna Azabal) with some crushing news. An ISIS propaganda video has leaked online showing Nassim’s adored elder brother Kamal (Aboubakr Bensaihi), who had felt compelled to abscond to Syria to “do good things,” participating in an execution squad, shooting a kneeling prisoner in the back of the head with the blank-eyed dispassion of a zealot.
With the news of Kamal’s radicalization spreading quickly at school and in the community, Nassim and Leila are shunned. It makes an already truculent and confused Nassim the perfect target for a deviously charismatic local recruiter (Fouad Hajji, smiling and loathsome), who expertly manipulates the boy’s desire to believe his brother is still somehow a hero. Meanwhile, the narrative skips into flashback mode to describe the good intentions, no-choice scenarios, blackmail and coercion that brought the fundamentally decent Kamal to that horrifying point, as his initial humanitarian mission to assist with rescue operations in bombed-out Syrian cities becomes corrupted and then brutally compromised by the advance of ISIS. All this context is contrived to generate sympathy for a seeming devil, but it’s also, in its moment-to-moment detail, loosely plausible. We are reminded that not all foreign jihadists joined up with murderous intent, and among the first victims of ISIS were, in many cases, the ones ISIS decided to absorb.
Over the course of its 135-minute sprawl, “Rebel” remains dynamic by weaving a host of standard genre elements into its many subplots. Some map onto the contours of the serious drama better than others: Leila’s anguished, perilous journey to Syria to retrieve her child is tense and believable. But a lovers-on-the-run sequence, involving Kamal and Noor (Tara Abboud), the enslaved woman assigned to him as a wife, strains credibility, and the film’s knife-turning ending feels like a twist too far.
Still, there is significant skill in how the directors (known individually as Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah) make set pieces out of scenarios to which we’ve all grown numb. With the help of Robrecht Heyvaert’s elegant action camerawork and especially Frédéric Thoraval’s lucid, snappy editing, motorbike chases rattle with immediacy, while split-second moral dilemmas are amped up to a frenetic pitch. Kamal, pulling an injured child from a wrecked home, runs through a street that’s exploding on all sides — a virtuoso use of the kind of giddy aesthetics more usually applied to Tom Cruise running away from a baddie with a macguffin on a flash drive.
Even more audaciously, at several points during the film, the action slips almost imperceptibly into a heightened register as 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 that breaks out in a kebab joint: It ought to be absurd, and yet it sort of works, especially as it puts us right inside the righteous anger and frustration of a young man whose motivations would be more comforting to us if they remained impenetrably monstrous.
These self-consciously outré flourishes, however, can’t wholly obscure the way the screenplay, co-written by the directors with Jan Van Dyck and Kevin Meul, is otherwise precision-tooled to pull from the moral morass of extremist terrorism a clear and thrilling narrative, shorn of nuance. It is very obvious, in “Rebel,” who the real villains are (the ISIS leadership, the psychos who have joined up less because of ideology than because they enjoy killing, and the brokers who channel fresh meat into their slaughterhouse, largely for money) and who the victims (everyone else).
But the movie’s bulldozer bravado in presenting complex issues in the bluntly simplifying language of the action movie — one that the young male viewers most vulnerable to the deceitful seductions of extremist ideologies will not only understand but might even seek out as entertainment — could ultimately be its chief virtue. Perhaps one effective battering ram is more valuable than a dozen smart, subtle small-scale dramas that play to far smaller arthouse audiences made up of exactly the demographic least likely to ever find themselves the target of Islamic fundamentalist recruitment. The film is personal to Adil & Bilall. Both claim to have known young men like Kamal and Nassim back in Belgium, and with “Rebel,” it seems they’ve made the anti-radicalization movie they feel might have changed those guys’ minds — which is to say, the anti-radicalization movie those guys might have actually watched.