Legionnaire: Van Damme’s Period Desert Epic
Jean Claude Van Damme gets real in Legionnaire (1998)
The late 90s was an odd time to be a fan of action movies. Many big action heroes saw their star power fade as audiences began to turn away from their awesome movies of violence and revenge in favour of more tame fare. What a truly hellish time it was. In response to the fickle nature of the audiences of the time, our favourite leading men began to accept roles far outside their comfort zone. Stallone returned to serious acting in Copland. Schwarzenegger hammed it up in Batman and Robin. And Seagal? Well, he carried on regardless. Jean-Claude Van Damme however was one of those who attempted to forge new ground in his 1998 release Legionnaire. Did he succeed? Read on to find out!
The JCVD Way
At the outset, the movie doesn’t seem like a major departure from the usual stellar output of the Muscles from Brussels. The movie’s script was penned by frequent Van Damme collaborator Sheldon Lettich, scribe of such JCVD classics as Bloodsport and Double Impact. At its helm was Peter MacDonald, best known to action movie fans as the last minute director of Rambo III. As you can probably guess from the title, Van Damme is once again playing a legionnaire, a role he portrayed previously in Lionheart. Even the movie’s 1920’s setting shouldn’t be too jarring for hardcore Van Dammage fans, as it is a time period where he based the majority of his 1996 tournament fighter epic The Quest. This is where the similarities end however. Get ready for a new type of Van Damme movie!
Monsieur Van Damme Goes to France
The story begins in the French city of Marseilles in 1925. Van Damme plays a boxer named Alain Lefevre, who is ordered by the local crime boss to throw his next fight. Matters are complicated further by the fact that this crime boss is now involved in a violent relationship with Alain’s ex-fiancé. A secret meeting between the two former lovers follows, where they agree to run away together to America after the fight. Without going into too much detail, things do not go exactly to plan and Alain soons finds himself on the run from both the mob and the police. He is left with only one option: to join the French Foreign Legion.
It is at this point that the movie truly comes into its own. Filmed on location in Morocco, the settings are fantastic and act as a great backdrop to the unfolding drama. Here, Alain meets up with his fellow Legion recruits, all of whom have their own specific reason for enlisting. Mackintosh is an upper-class Englishman with a gambling problem, Guido is a young Italian man hoping to earn enough money to be worthy of his girlfriend’s love, and Luther is an African American man hoping to start a new life in Africa and leave the injustices of the United States behind.
They’re a motley crew no doubt, but the friendship that grows between them is a joy to watch and really gives Van Damme a chance to try out his acting chops. It’s not all plain sailing in Morocco however. The French gangsters soon learn his location and infiltrate the Legion. Soon Alain has to watch his back from enemies both inside and outside the Legion. And this is how the movie’s fantastic action scenes come into play.
Van Damme at his Realist
I’ll admit that the first time I watched Legionnaire, I didn’t really know what to make of it. I was 14 years old in 1998 and just about the biggest Jean-Claude Van Damme fan you could ever hope to meet. I still am. My formative years were spent watching JCVD kick major ass in underground fighting tournaments, travel through time to stop Ron Silver from becoming President, and fight side by side with his long–lost twin brother. Who also had a Belgian accent. Yes. So it came as a major shock when young me slipped in the old Legionnaire VHS and watched my ass kicking hero take a beating from a large German brute in the legionnaires’ barracks.
This is a movie played much more for realism. In fact, Van Damme does not perform a single kick in this movie. You read that right. A man who built a career on how high he could kick neglects to lift his leg even once. It’s very much a departure for Van Damme, but there is still plenty of action to keep hardcore fans like satisfied. Before I go on however, I should state that, despite the fact that the high kicks and splits are gone, one major Van Damme trope does remain. A shower scene seems to have been included just so the audience can get a good look at Van Damme’s bare ass once more. According to writer Sheldon Lettich, this is something that Van Damme asks for in his movies. Good for him.
Period Appropriate Gunplay
Anyway, the action here is very much of the gunplay variety with the new legionnaires being tasked with defending a desert base from the local nomadic tribes. I’ve long been a fan of siege movies, and Legionnaire doesn’t disappoint. Tribesmen on horseback bear down on the desert outpost, their scimitars shimmering in the sun, while Van Damme and friends bravely fend them off with their ancient firearms and an ever-dwindling supply of ammo. Of course, the local populace isn’t the only threat. The baking desert sun is an enemy in itself too.
The movie looks gorgeous and it’s easy to see where every cent of its impressive $35 million budget went. Clothing and firearms are era specific, the battle scenes are teaming with extras, the interiors, from barracks to brothels all look fantastic, and the exterior shots of the Moroccan desserts look breathtaking. The use of the haunting song “Mon Legionnaire” by German singer Ute Lemper over the end credits really makes you believe that you’ve watched something special. But despite all of this, the movie was released straight to video back in 1998. So, what went wrong?
A Little Kickless
Van Damme’s previous two outings, Double Team and Knock Off, didn’t exactly set the world aflame, so distributors were wary of pumping money into another JCVD vehicle especially one which was such a drastic departure from his usual ass kicking fare. The movie itself is not without its problems though. Clocking in at a scant 95 minutes, the running time is much too low for a movie of this nature. Even an extra 10 or 15 minutes added on to the run time would have made the world of difference, allowing us to feel more invested in the different characters and relish the action scenes more. This shortened run time is certainly most obvious in the movie’s ending.
Without giving away any spoilers, the ending feels rushed and unsatisfying. The movie ceases to be about Alain’s story and switches to a political message that seems forced. It really took me out of the movie and left me feeling deflated. It’s not quite as bad an ending as Beneath the Planet of the Apes (that made me want to take pills) but it’s certainly up there for me. Thankfully, the full version of the shooting script is available online and includes a much more upbeat and conclusive ending.
The Thinking Man’s Action Movie
So there you have it. Van Damme’s forgotten desert epic. We already knew he could act, his performance in the excellent Maximum Risk showed us that, but he really gets the opportunity to shine here and show us just what he’s capable of. He would truly go on to deliver on the promise of Legionnaire in movies like Replicant and JCVD. It is interesting to note that this was almost a very different type of movie indeed.
Van Damme originally envisioned it as a buddy comedy, teaming him up with a comedic actor like John Candy. Maybe his working with Rob Schneider on Knock Off left a bad taste in his mouth. Who’s to know? Personally, I’m glad Legionnaire turned out the way it did. I love this movie and it has been in my personal top 5 Van Damme flicks for the past twenty years. People magazine once called Timecop a “thinking man’s movie”. Personally, I think this moniker fits Legionnaire a lot better. Check it out. You’ll be glad you did.
A childhood spent watching Jean-Claude Van Damme kick people in the face led to Dan Shanahan becoming the well-adjusted human being and all-around nice guy he is today. Having spent the majority of his twenties kicking ass, taking names, but mostly teaching English in Japan, he now resides in his native Ireland. He lives in constant fear that a team of ninjas may have followed him home and now secretly share his house with him.
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