In some ways, Legionnaire is the film that best personifies Jean-Claude Van Damme and his place among other action stars of his generation.
Certainly, films like Bloodsport or Kickboxer or Maximum Risk or Double Impact are better representative of his skills as an action star, martial artist and an actor. Legionnaire doesn’t even have that much action compared the vast majority of his films. He’s not playing a twin. Not a single kick is thrown the entire film. Instead, Legionnaire is a film representative of Van Damme’s ambition as an actor and his willingness to do something striking and interesting and beyond his expected realm of splits and explosions.
If one were being generous, the easiest description of Legionnaire would be “Van Damme’s Lawrence of Arabia.” Obviously, this film is little more than a grain of sand in the desert compared to David Lean’s epic masterpiece. But within the canon of Van Damme’s filmography, Legionnaire stands alone. The man has flirted with period pieces before, as seen with The Quest. And he’s also shown he’s not averse to making films that are more focused on drama than punches or shootouts, as with Nowhere To Run. But Legionnaire surpasses the ambitions of both, providing a more interesting dramatic backbone with better characters and a more interesting story than Nowhere To Run and a more immersive and fully utilized period setting than that of The Quest.
Set in Marseilles during the 1920s, Van Damme plays Alain Lefevre, a boxer in need of money who agrees to take a dive in his upcoming fight. Naturally, he chooses not to throw the fight. (Has any character actually thrown a fight in a movie where they’ve previously agreed to do so?) Instead, he attempts to run off to America with Katrina (Ana Sofrenovic), the girlfriend of Lucien Galgani (Jim Carter, aka Carson the butler from Downton Abbey) who just so happens to be the ex-fiancée Alain left at the altar several years ago. But just as their escape to America is on the verge of success, Galgani’s men kill Alain’s friend and capture Katrina.
Luckily, there just so happens to be a recruiting office for the French Foreign Legion only an alley or so over from where all this goes down. It’s the fastest, easiest ticket out of town and out of the spotlight, so off Alain goes to become a member of one the world’s most infamous military organizations.
And it is from this point on where Legionnaire truly feels unique among Van Damme’s films. It has its share of action scenes with explosions and gun battles. But those are used more as a means to accent the harshness of Alain’s experience than as an obligatory action beat. This is a film about one man’s journey to survive and the brotherhood he forms with a trio of fellow legionnaires. As is so often the case with Van Damme, it all comes back to family. Alain is very much a role that plays to the actor’s strengths and predispositions. Alain is a man running from his past, haunted by his failures and determined never to repeat his mistakes. As such, there are few action stars better suited to delivering that specific brand of anger and regret bubbling just below the surface of a steely, stoic exterior. It’s a type that Van Damme has all but perfected by this point and it serves him well here, even when the script is at its thinnest.
But like Alain, one gets the sense that Van Damme wanted this stint within the French Foreign Legion to be a way to cut ties, in a way, with his past. His best box office days were behind him and his star had begun to fade. Legionnaire is a film that deviates in grand fashion from much of his filmography in part because this was a project close to the actor’s heart, but also because it was likely seen as an opportunity to prove that his worth could be found beyond his ability to do splits or throw kicks. The Foreign Legion was a chance for a man to reshape his identity and forge a new destiny, and one gets the distinct feeling that that was precisely what Van Damme aimed to do here.
Tying it all together is Peter MacDonald. A director known largely for his second unit work on the likes of Batman (1989) and Tango & Cash (and more recently on a large swath of the Harry Potter films as well as Guardians of the Galaxy), MacDonald nevertheless infuses the film with a handsome look and as much of a classical feel as one can given the constraints and budget of a production so relatively small. The film’s larger action scenes have all the staging, flow and feel of a more classical and epic style of film, once again further differentiating this from any other film of Van Damme’s before or since thanks to MacDonald’s strong eye.
One wonders, however, what would have become of Legionnaire had the film followed the path in which Van Damme had envisioned early on which was as a comedy that would have paired him up with a comedian in the vein of John Candy. Legionnaire is perfectly enjoyable in its own right, but that type of setup is simply too delicious to not be at least somewhat saddened that we’ll never see something like it.
Van Dammage Report Statistics for Legionnaire:
Number of splits: 0
Number of splitkicks: 0
Reason for being European: He lives in France.
Best line: N/A
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Knock Off | Double Team | Maximum Risk | The Quest | Sudden Death | Street Fighter | Timecop | Hard Target | Nowhere to Run | Universal Soldier | Double Impact | Death Warrant | Lionheart | Kickboxer | Cyborg | Bloodsport