Review: ‘Rebel’ (2022), starring Aboubakr Bensaihi, Lubna Azabal, Amir El Arbi, Tara Abboud and Younes Bouab

November 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Aboubakr Bensaihi in “Rebel” (Photo courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures)

“Rebel” (2022)

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah

Arabic, French, Dutch and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Belgium and in Syria, from 2013 to 2016, the dramatic film “Rebel” features a predominantly Middle Eastern cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An amateur rapper in his 20s moves from Belgium to Syria to help war victims, but he is forced to join ISIS, while his adolescent brother is torn between obeying his mother’s wishes to be a good student in Belgium or running away to Syria to reunite with his brother. 

Culture Audience: “Rebel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing somewhat unconventional dramas about families who have internal conflicts about controversial politics and terrorism.

Aboubakr Bensaihi in “Rebel” (Photo courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures)

“Rebel” is a gripping story about a family torn apart by political extremism. Although this 135-minute drama is a little too long and needed tighter film editing, the story and performances are worth watching. “Rebel” has some music-video-styled interludes (where people break into a hip-hop performance, including having backup dancers) that are very unusual for a film with this subject matter. Some viewers will appreciate the film for having this non-traditional approach. Other viewers will dislike these musical scenes for being too distracting or too disruptive to the movie’s serious tone.

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, “Rebel” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. El Arbi, Fallah, Kevin Meul and Jan van Dyck co-wrote the “Rebel” screenplay. The movie alternates between showing the contrasting lives of two brothers and how their lives could be on a collision course to tragedy. “Rebel” is told in non-chronological order, but the movie shows the year in which a major scene is taking place.

When viewers first see 12-year-old Nassim Wasaki (played by Amir El Arbi), it’s 2015, and he thinks he is having a normal day at his school in the Brussels suburb of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (also known as Molenbeek), Belgium. Nassim is the son of a Moroccan immigrant named Leila Wasaki (played by Lubna Azabal), who is a single mother. On this particular day, Nassim is taken out of his classroom and sent to the school principal’s office, where a tearful Leila hugs him.

What’s the reason for this emergency visit? Leila’s older son Kamal Wasaki (played by Aboubakr Bensaihi) has been identified in the media as being part of a group of ISIS terrorists who were filmed on video executing people by shooting them. A TV news report says that Kamal was a local celebrity rapper using the stage name DJ Kawas, but he disappeared several months ago after drugs were found in his family’s garage.

Flashbacks show that Kamal had a history of getting in trouble with the law in Belgium, but this drug bust was the last straw for Leila, who told Kamal that he was no longer welcome in her home. Nassim, who has always looked up to Kamal, is devastated that Kamal has to move out of the family house. A homeless and aimless Kamal eventually met some people who convinced him to move to Syria to help war victims.

Kamal sees this relocation as an opportunity to turn his life around for the better, because he thinks he will be involved in a worthy charitable cause. Kamal finds out too late that he has really been recruited to join ISIS, along with several other young men from Syria and other countries. Kamal is forced into this ISIS recruitment program and is held captive, as he trains to be an ISIS soldier. Kamal eventually gets a new name while he is under ISIS control: Abu-Bakr Al-Belgik. A terrorist named Abu Amar (played by Younes Bouab) is also part of the story.

“Rebel” shows how the scandal of Kamal’s involvement with ISIS is processed differently by Leila and Nassim. Leila feels a lot of shame but also determination not to let Nassim fall prey to the same recruiters. Nassim has a childlike gullibility or ignorance in not fully understanding what Kamal is doing in Syria. Even though Nassim sees the news reports and videos on social media that show Nassim is now an ISIS soldier who kills people, in Nassim’s mind, he thinks that Kamal is helping people in Syria.

Meanwhile, Leila goes to support group meetings with other people whose loved ones have become lost in the grips of ISIS recruitment. Nassim slowly begins to see how Kamal’s activities are affecting their family’s reputation in Belgium. More people start to shun or avoid Nassim and Leila, who wants to protect Nassim from a lot of the trauma she is experiencing.

Nassim’s female classmate Hind (played by Malak Sebar) is his closest friend at school. At first, Hind is curious about Kamal and asks Nassim about him. Nassim tells her that Kamal is helping people in Syria. But when Hind’s parents find out that this is what Nassim thinks of Kamal, the parents greatly disapprove. Hind goes from not being allowed by her parents to sit next to Nassim on class, to not being allowed to hang out with him, to being pulled out of the school altogether, so Hind won’t have to see Nassim at all in school.

Meanwhile, an ISIS recruiter named Idriss (played by Fouad Hajji) has been hanging out at the schoolyard to talk to Nassim. It should come as no surprise that Idriss uses Nassim’s desperate desire to see Kamal as bait in these recruitment efforts. Idriss tells Nassim that Kamal very much wants to see Nassim, but that the only way is for Nassim to secretly go to Syria. Idriss says he will pay for the trip and be Nassim’s chaperone. The movie shows what Nassm’s decision is.

The middle section of “Rebel” tends to drag with repetitive scenes of shootouts and people being tortured. Viewers see that during this dark period in Kamal’s life, he found some brightness by meeting, falling in love with, and marrying a woman named Noor (played by Tara Abboud), who knows that Kamal is being forced to do ISIS activities. Kamal is faced with a moral dilemma when it comes to Noor, and his decision is the catalyst for many other things that happen in the story.

“Rebel” has good acting overall but not anything outstanding enough to get major awards. The movie has some visually ambitious and artistic scenes, but some of the narrative doesn’t flow very smoothly because of the way the movie’s non-chronological timeline has some jumbled editing. The last third of the movie is when “Rebel” is at its best in its intended emotional impact. Viewers who are patient enough to watch this entire movie might be left stunned by the outcome of events depicted in “Rebel.”

Yellow Veil Pictures released “Rebel” in select U.S. cinemas on September 15, 2023. The movie was released in Morocco and in parts of Europe and Asia in 2022.

Review: ‘Bad Boys for Life,’ starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys for Life"
Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in “Bad Boys for Life” (Photo by Ben Rothstein)

“Bad Boys for Life”

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah

Culture Representation: Set in Miami and Mexico City, this male-centric action-adventure movie has a racially diverse cast of African American, Latino, white and Asian actors.

Culture Clash: “Bad Boys for Life” is a story of law enforcement versus ruthless criminals.

Culture Audience: “Bad Boys for Life” will appeal primarily to fans of the “Bad Boys” franchise and Will Smith admirers, but the movie’s superior quality to the previous two “Bad Boys” films could attract many new fans to the franchise.

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in “Bad Boys for Life” (Photo by Ben Rothstein)

“Bad Boys for Life,” starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, has accomplished something most franchise movies haven’t been able to do—make the third film in the series the best one so far. Michael Bay, who directed the first two “Bad Boys” movies—1995’s “Bad Boys” and 2003’s “Bad Boys II”—is no longer at the helm at the franchise, although he does make a cameo as a wedding emcee in “Bad Boys for Life.” And because Bay is no longer the director in charge of the “Bad Boys” franchise, the homophobic and racist jokes are gone, as well as the voyeuristic camera-angle shots that objectify the private parts of scantily clad women.

The directors of “Bad Boys for Life” are Moroccan-born Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who previously directed indie films and episodes of FX’s crime-drama series “Snowfall,” before making their major-studio film debut with “Bad Boys for Life.” Smith, Jerry Bruckheimer and the other producers of “Bad Boy for Life” made the wise choice of hiring directors who’ve injected some new blood into this intermittent movie series. With “Bad Boys for Life,” there’s also a new team of screenwriters to the franchise: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan, who flip the script with some surprising twists. And here’s another refreshing aspect of “Bad Boys for Life”: The best parts of the movie aren’t in the trailers. In fact, the trailers make the movie look very predictable when the film really isn’t.

Make no mistake: The gun fights, car chases and machismo that people love about the “Bad Boys” franchise are all still there. So too is the crackling energy between Miami cop partners Mike Lowery (played by Smith) and Marcus Burnett (played by Lawrence), who are bickering opposites as much as they are loyal best friends. And the characters still reference Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” reggae song, which was also made famous as the theme song to the reality show “Cops.” Another familiar “Bad Boys” movie trope that’s still part of the franchise is the 360-degree slow-motion shot of Mike and Marcus standing up after a moment of despair. But even with all of these repeat characteristics, “Bad Boys II” was such an inferior, bloated mess that the only way for to go was up for any subsequent “Bad Boys” movie.

The first two “Bad Boys” films followed the cliché formula of cops versus drug dealers. They also had a token female supporting character as “a damsel in distress” type who wanted to be perceived as a strong woman, but was really someone being protected by Mike and Marcus. (In “Bad Boys,” the token female sidekick was Téa Leoni, who played a witness to a murder. In “Bad Boys II,” Gabrielle Union played Marcus’ younger sister, who was an undercover cop that Marcus and Mike still had to rescue.)

Instead of a “war against drugs” storyline, “Bad Boys for Life” veers in another direction, by having a young sharpshooter assassin named Armando Aretas (played by Jacob Scipio) on a revenge mission. Armando takes orders from his domineering and evil mother, Isabel Aretas (played by Kate Del Castillo), who’s in Mexico City while Armando is in Miami killing off law-enforcement people. Isabel’s husband was a drug lord, and she blames his death on people who are on the hit list. Viewers see in the beginning of the film that Mike is on the Aretas’ hit list, and Isabel (a femme fatale who’s into the occult) wants his execution to be saved for last.

Meanwhile, much of this sequel acknowledges how many years have passed between the second and third “Bad Boys” films, because there are constant references to how aging has affected Mike and Marcus. In the film’s opening scene, Marcus becomes a grandfather, when his daughter, Megan (played by Bianca Bethune), has given birth to a son, whom she names after Marcus.

Mike is still a smooth-talking bachelor playboy who’s slept with at least a few of the women who show up in the “Bad Boys” movies. He’s an heir to a fortune, and he indulges in his taste for high-priced cars and clothes. (The first two movies make reference to Mike having a deceased rich father, but Mike’s other family members aren’t seen or mentioned.) Mike isn’t the marrying type because he’s a workaholic whose entire identity is wrapped up in being at the top of his game as a police officer.

By contrast, Marcus is a married father who comes from a working-class background, and he’s always threatening to quit the police force. Marcus and his long-suffering wife, Theresa (played by Theresa Randle), had two sons and a daughter in the first “Bad Boys” movies, but only their daughter is seen in “Bad Boys for Life.” However, Joe Pantoliano has returned as Captain Howard, the immediate supervisor of Mike and Marcus, who still spends a great deal of time yelling at them for causing expensive chaos every time that Mike and Marcus chase criminals.

Even though Mike and Marcus have gotten older, they still have the same quirks. Mike is still a materialistic neat freak who loses his temper if any of his prized possessions gets dirty. Marcus is still the queasier and more sensitive of the two cops (his inclination to gag and possibly vomit at a crime scene is a running joke in all of the movies), and he’s the more spiritually minded partner who uses therapy and religion to deal with his stress. Marcus’ religious beliefs play a key role in a plot twist that keeps Mike and Marcus apart for about one-third of the movie.

“Bad Boys for Life” also shows more women in positions of power at the Miami Police Department than in the previous “Bad Boys” movies. One of them is Rita (played by Paola Núñez), the no-nonsense leader of a newly formed elite Miami PD intelligence team called Advanced Miami Metro Operations (AMMO), which uses a lot of highly advanced technology in their surveillance. Rita is a former flame of Mike’s, and she resents having to work closely with him again. Mike and Rita’s strained interactions with each other make it clear that their romantic relationship ended badly—and they’re not completely over each other.

Also on the AMMO team are weapons specialist Kelly (played by Vanessa Hudgens), who idolizes Mike; laid-back computer whiz Dorn (played by Alexander Ludwig), who’s got brawn to match his brains; and smart-ass former DEA agent Rafe (played by Charles Melton), who often clashes with Mike. All of these extremely good-looking people on the AMMO team look more like models than real police officers, but who said a movie like this had to be 100% realistic?

“Bad Boys for Life” still has some cliché moments, such as the ultra-violent scenes where people seem to have superhero stunt powers, the obligatory Miami nightclub scene filled with beautiful people, and the inevitable fire/explosion scenes where the heroes don’t get burned. And the movie has plenty of comedic moments, some better than others.

However, “Bad Boys for Life” adds emotional gravitas that wasn’t seen in the previous “Bad Boys” films. The very real and tragic consequences of murder are acknowledged in more depth. Mike and Marcus also come to grips with being middle-aged, since they don’t feel as invincible as they did in their youth. (Although Mike is much more reluctant to admit it than Marcus is.)

As for the double-whammy Aretas villains, they’re the most dangerous out of all the “Bad Boys” villains so far, since their crime spree is motivated by hatred and revenge rather than by trying to protect a drug-dealing business. All of the actors do a competent job with what they’ve been given for their characters in this action film. Smith, in particular, adeptly handles the surprising change that Mike goes through toward the end of the film, which leaves no doubt that another “Bad Boys” sequel is in the works.

Columbia Pictures released “Bad Boys for Life” in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020.

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