It seems to be the popular thing to do to jump on the bandwagon and badmouth Van Damme for being a bad actor or for making one bad movie after another. I have always claimed to be a fan, but mostly just because when I was a kid I watched movies like Kickboxer and Bloodsport and Death Warrant over and over. To be honest, I hadn't really seen many more of his movies for years, except for Hard Target, which I found less impressive than his early martial arts films.
But recently I bought 16 Van Damme movies on two DVDs (for 20 yuan about $2.75 - thanks to mainland China's total indifference to copyright laws), and as I watch them I have noticed something important. It seems that most of the reason that Van Damme is criticized is because of things like goofy camaraderie or cheesy heroic lines, things like that. But it seems noteworthy that in just about every movie he is in, he is fighting for justice or to be a good father or good husband or to protect his fellow man from criminals or to avenge a loved one's violent death. Van Damme represents good human values in a way that most other action stars don't. I feel like he deserves a lot more credit for that than he ever gets.
Besides that, the guy can speak five languages. Did you know? WOW.
In Legionnaire he plays a boxer who's paid to take a dive in the second round, but when he, ah, accidentally beats the tar out of his opponent, he suddenly finds himself being pursued by mobsters and police, which quickly dashes his and his girlfriend's plans of getting out of France and going to America. Soon he finds himself an unwilling member of the French Foreign Legion, which employs the psychotic idea of training soldiers to exist solely for the honor of dying in battle, and is run like a prison with racks of guns. They are sent to Africa to crush an insurgency, resulting in more of a war film than a martial arts film.
But I have no problem with that. There is a notable appearance of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, a clearly talented actor who recently wasted his undeniable on screen charm on such backwards TV shows as Lost and Oz, and here is again asked to do something terrible he takes on an American accent, complete with ridiculous lines like "The only thing that keeps a man livin', you gots ta have a dream
" But there is a friendship that forms between Alain Lefevre (Van Damme) and Adawale's character, Luther, that is pretty good, and allows for the most tense and moving scene in the film.
Given that so much of the movie plays like a prison film, since the Legionnaires are generally forced members, some of the scenes are a little strange, such as the one where they argue about the best way to hand wash laundry. Then again, it seems like some of the lines between soldiers were put in for comic relief ("What's the matter, don't like girls?" "Of course not, I'm British!").
Speaking of which, for how moving the friendship between Alain and Luther is, Alain has an undeniably cheesy friendship with the British guy, although it is also a very unstable but powerful relationship in many ways, and also allows for some good dramatic tension near the end of the film. Alain is also the good guy that sticks up for the underdogs who can't defend themselves against the more brutish soldiers very well, which doesn't seem to make him many friends. Also, soon after their first battle, he walks around shirtless showing off his chiseled body and making enemies effortlessly.
The battle scenes, by the way, are also pretty good, much better than I would have expected from Van Damme, if only because war scenes are not what he usually does. But here they're impressive, although the end of the movie is a pretty significant disappointment. It builds up this remarkably in-depth story and then just stops, like they ran out of money. The leader of the enemy insurgency lets Alain live so he can tell his leader that this is what they can expect if they keep invading their country, and then Van Damme heads back into the sunset. It seems like what happens next should have been considered important, and it leaves me with the feeling that the movie ends just as the real climax was set up.
But nonetheless, I remember I was working in a video store in Fresno when the movie was released ten years ago, and for some reason I never watched it, but I'm glad that I have. It has plenty of shortcomings, but it is definitely worth watching.