Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Legionnaire (1998)

His movies still did okay business overseas but, in America, Jean-Claude Van Damme's career was beginning to fall apart. Some of it was financial, as his last couple features had flopped stateside. Some of it was personal, as his drug problem was taking its toll. However the ratio breaks down, wide releases seemed increasingly less probable for his films. “Legionnaire” was originally conceived for theaters but would end up going direct-to-video. It was far from the last Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle to be released in that manner. In fact, home video is where most of his movies would end up for the next decade. The years spent in DTV Purgatory begin here.

The year is 1920. French boxer Alain Lefevre has been paid by a local mobster to take a fall in his next match. Alain changes his mind while in the ring, winning the bout. On the run from the mob, he joins the French Foreign Legion. Soon afterwards, he arrives in North Africa, where Morocco is currently warring against the Berber rebellion. As the war crawls on, he is haunted by memories of the girl he left behind. Among the blood and sand, Lefevre makes friends and enemies. Soon, as the Rif warriors close in, Lefevre realizes he may die in this foreign land.

“Legionnaire” is a somewhat melodramatic war drama. Director Peter MacDonald, formerly of “Rambo III,” employs a rather histrionic visual sense. There's plenty of shots of the sun reflecting off the blowing sand dunes. Slow motion and misty flashbacks put in token appearances. The script matches this presentations. “Legionnaire” is about the manly bonds one form in combat. We know this because the film references that idea several times, both in dialogue and narration. The story, fraught with betrayal and brotherhood, sacrifices and mercy killings, hits several expected beats. There's the new recruit who can't quite hack it and the sadistic superior officer, among other cliches.

The script isn't what makes “Legionnaire” interesting. The film represents a deliberate effort by Jean-Claude Van Damme to star in a different kind of movie. He performs zero splits or roundhouse kicks in this film. In fact, there's no karate in “Legionnaire” at all. Which certainly makes sense for the setting and character but is still surprising. It's clear that Van Damme – who co-produced the film, by the way – was more concerned about showing off his acting chops than his high kicks. This plan mostly works. Van Damme gives a fine performance in “Legionnaire.” While conversing with his fellow soldiers, he says a lot with a shrug or a blink. As hammy as the script may get, Van Damme never overdoes it, balancing emotion and duty perfectly. When defeat seems certain, the resigned look in the Belgian's eyes says a lot. Van Damme's performance is widely better than the movie it's appearing in.

As an action film, “Legionnaire” veers towards the grim side of things. The violence itself is not especially graphic. The bullet wounds produce enough blood to justify the R rating but there are no dismembered bodies. The glimpses we get at the wounded or dead soldiers are brief. However, the impact of the violence is heavy. People scream in agony while shot with bullets or blown back by explosions. As the Rif forces close in, a sense of hopelessness begins to inhabit the violence. “Legionnaire' gives off a real sense that these characters aren't going to survive. Most of them don't. While any message about the senselessness of war are lost in the overwrought script, the film does capture a suitably bleak atmosphere.

Van Damme leads the cast but there are a few other recognizable faces. The generously envowled Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje plays Luther, a black man who has fled racial persecution in the American South. Akinnouye-Agbaje is actually quite good in the part, bringing a certain degree of pathos and humor to the part. Nicholas Farrell is interesting as Mackintosh, a British solider with a gambling problem. His character is slightly underwritten but Farrell manages to make that look like complexity. Daniel Caltagirone appears as Guido, the inexperienced Italian solider longing for his girl back home. Caltagirone's fate is easy to guess but he's likable in the part, seeming like a wide-eyed kid.

Ultimately, I think “Legionnaire” went direct-to-video not because it was bad but because it was hard to market. A dour war epic is probably not what most people want to see when they pay for a ticket to a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. The script is standard and the direction is somewhat tacky but the performances elevate the material, creating a moderately interesting film about an underexplored period in history. It's not a special movie but is probably better than you're expecting, considering the circumstances. [6/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 3 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[X] Dancing
[] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

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