Legionnaire (1998)

Legionnaire (1998), directed by Peter MacDonald.

French Foreign Legion films used to be a busy little genre, now pretty much lapsed. The formula was well-developed: a preface wherein our hero gets in a jam and needs to escape to somewhere he can forget and be forgotten, the company of similar men, all scum of the earth, the sadistic sergeant and "march or die" training in North Africa, then battles with desert tribesmen and a desperate siege at an isolated fort until our hero is the last man standing.

This is just a "B" adventure movie but they do try to deliver on the formula and actually come close in the time they have. Too much syrup in the emotions? Can't be helped these days. Some rather good large-scale battle scenes.

I don't see many Jean-Claude Van Damme films but I like this one for what it is. It gives him a chance to act in something other than a martial arts vehicle. Like a lot of impassive tough guys (Charles Bronson, say) if you give him a chance he actually delivers anguish through that thousand-yard stare, those sad soulful eyes.

The supporting characters also get to show their stuff: Brit actors Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Nicholas Farrell in this case.

The pre-Legion setup is of a boxer in love with a mobster's girl. He refuses to take a dive, which is another well-known genre: think The Set-Up (1949) and Pulp Fiction (1994) and Snatch (2000).

The score is built around the old song "Parlez-moi d'amour" ("Speak to me of love"). I can never call it to mind; all I can remember for incidental French romantic tunes is "La Vie en rose". There is a third melody... but I just can't remember it.

Opens in 1925 Marseilles, then moves to Morocco and is filmed there, too.

It did not get a theatrical release in the US; direct to cable and home video.

DVDs have been a problem. You can see the mixed history at DVDCompare. In the US you could get either 1.33 cropped editions or 4:3 letterboxed. I imported a PAL DVD but it was one with an aspect ratio of around 1.77; others are the correct 2.35.

My thumbnails are from a German "Eurovideo" Blu-ray. All-region, both English and German audio tracks, but no subtitles. Black levels are poor but we have an occasional good image. At least the aspect ratio is correct.

There is some on-screen text in German at the beginning. The English version on the other DVDs is:


At the height of its glory, the French Foreign Legion was made up of men widely regarded as the scum of the earth.

It was a mercenary army posted to colonies in Northern Africa and Southeast Asia... but it's soldiers swore no allegiance to France, only to the Legion and to each other. The Legion asked no questions about a man's past... nor did it offer much hope for his future.

They fought to the last man standing, no matter the quarrel, no matter the cause. It was a hard way to get a second chance in life...

...which everyone who watches movies knows anyway.