Before Jean-Claude Van Damme did martial arts films, he did French films where he stuck to just dramatic acting. It turned out he also was extremely good at martial arts while working in Belgium. This marks a return to his roots, and he didn’t have to do a single martial arts move to keep our attention. Most people also who know of Jean-Claude are probably pretty aware of his horrible cocaine problem, which he finally got rid of before making this film.
Directed by Peter MacDonald, who worked originally as a second-unit director to Irvin Kershner on The Empire Strikes Back and the same on Batman & Van Damme’s earlier winner Nowhere To Run, finally puts his artistic muscles to a real test with a classic-feeling, old-fashioned European styled directed piece with absolutely gorgeous cinematography by Doug Milsome who also worked with Stanley Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket.
This film actually inspired by true events also contains a magnificent supporting cast headed by Nigerian British-trained actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje sporting an outstanding American accent and Shakespearean theatre actors Steven Berkoff (Octopussy, Beverly Hills Cop) and Nicholas Farrell who worked with director Kenneth Branagh on Hamlet. Jean-Claude also helped to develop more of the romantic story with his long-time partner screenwriter Sheldon Lettich.
There’s definitely a joke in the film on Jean-Claude’s drug problem that was actively seen in his mid-90’s or earlier work through the usual blankness in his eyes where Berkoff’s character accuses him stating, ’’There is a fog over your eyes in which you can only see your own arrogance!’’ But now they are clear here, or they will be as the film states, and Jean-Claude will be the first one to tell you this in his interviews.
The film follows a boxer named Alain Lefevre who through an unfortunate sequence of circumstances ends up fleeing to the French Foreign Legion to prevent being executed by a Marseilles gang who in fact also holds an ex-flame from his past. Unlike the usual ’’horizontal drama’’ (a name given to stories where the characters fall into a big problem they all must solve), this film takes the ’’vertical drama’’ route where all the story and drama is built from the characters and their own personal problems.
This is obvious since the character’s outside world problems keep changing into completely different conflicts enhancing the emotional pathos of the storyline. The style of directing is also a lot more broad using dissolves to cut into the continuous narrative using visuals instead of lots of dialogue to explain the story. This is more of a classic European style similar to that of Vincent Minnelli’s An American in Paris. The conflicts the characters must face also are top-notch in emotional and human depth with a great deal of realistic credibility.
The fact that Van Damme’s character would be caring and humane enough to risk his own life and well being by carrying his friend across the desert while the others march on ignoring his efforts is absolutely truthful and thought provoking that questions the principles of the legion of that time. Performance is also top-notch, especially the surprising efforts of Jean-Claude himself. His character seems to embody the emotional observer where he tears up in a purely visual and subtle method. Very reminiscent of what we see Omar Sharif do in Doctor Zhivago; both movies about a main character who witnesses the horrors of war.
This film also like many of the late ’90’s war films specialized in immersing the audience in the actual battles as if we were there with them with subjective direction, which we also see demonstrated in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan; released that same year of 1998. A surprising turn the film takes is the continuing pursuit to kill Alain Lefevre.
Sheldon Lettich points out that this although hard to believe, indeed was becoming common within the circles of people joining the legion to hunt down someone already within it. In a similar situation, he explains on the commentary on the DVD of how a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust discovered the very Nazi who killed his family had fled to the French Foreign Legion after the war, and pursued him to Southeast Asia in revenge. Why not make that story into this Legionnaire movie instead? Because it’s your typical revenge plot. This is more ambitious. One thing that is also unusual about this film is that Lefevre does not become THE Legionnaire till close to 30 minutes into the film where the major conflict comes into full fruition.
This is because Lefevre’s real life story had to be told first in order to give the audience the back story and reasons why he joined the French Foreign Legion. As the saying goes and as the film screams out, ’’This is the Legion!! You march or you die!!!’’ The Legion offered to many criminals, fugitives, drifters, the honor seeking, the dreamers, the redeemers, and the confused lost (what Lefevre is) that the Legion didn’t offer much, but another grim chance at life threatened by multiple dangers.
The other thing that also is very surprising about this film was its romantic atmosphere mixed in with the horrors of a futile war between the Riff tribesmen and the colonial French force. With the deaths occurring in beautiful surroundings of sunbursts and shadows, reminds of you what is still beautiful in the world outside the war in this remote wasteland. Sheldon Lettich explains that he and Jean-Claude did not want to make the typical action movie with Legionnaire. It was about making a film closer to the romantics of The English Patient, though in this case, far more entertaining, suspenseful, and energetic.
It is too bad this film never was seen in the proper way it was meant to be, and has been rejected and neglected as not what the public expected from Jean-Claude. Some of the biggest mistakes the public has done throughout the entire history of the cinema is to ’’pigeon-hole’’ a person into a role. Since Jean-Claude is seen in a confirmation bias as only a martial-arts superstar, hence makes it extra difficult for him to do other work outside of just kickflinging action, and for the public to accept him anyway else.
The ending also is open-ended and ’open-minded’ leaving the audience with a whole slew of questions that is ultimately up to them to answer based on their subjective interpretations of the film. Seems to be a problem for an American audience to handle ordinarily, but such an ending is true to life as this film is.
If you’re not a fan of Jean-Claude’s martial arts films, you needn’t have to be to enjoy this exquisite work of art and beauty. All in all, I rate this film as a very well designed, developed, performed, and emotionally captivating action/war film that marks as one of the last films in the past few years that successfully captures a style other than the American-Hollywoodesque bombastic route that has become very cliche today.