Legionnaire [1998]

Exiled to a video-only release when its distributor balked after the flop of Jean-Claude Van Damme's previous film Knock Off, this lavish adventure deserved a chance at theatrical success. Action icon Van Damme recasts himself as a tragic romantic hero in this entertaining old-fashioned adventure with a modern sensibility. "The Muscles from Brussels" is no Brando, but he acquits himself nicely as a cocky boxer who double-crosses a Marseilles mobster and joins the French Foreign Legion when his half-baked plan backfires with tragic consequences. Surrounded by a better than usual cast (including Steven Berkoff as a Teutonic drill sergeant, Jim Carter as the ruthless ganglord, and Nicholas Farrell as a gentleman soldier with a taste for gambling and a dark past), Van Damme's dour performance sometimes gets lost in the colorful characters around him. But that's okay--there's adventure enough to go around and he's willing to share it. The Marseilles scenes evoke a quaint movie past with their smoky bars and shadowy streets, but the film is reborn as an ambitious, stoic platoon drama in the sands of French Morocco. Legionnaire alludes to classic films from Beau Geste to Casablanca to Lawrence of Arabia, but ultimately marches its own macho course, reveling in testosterone-driven heroics and bonding-under-fire while acknowledging the irony of its colonial mission ("We're the intruders," realizes one soldier). It's a calculated risk for Van Damme (who also cowrote and coproduced), but if Legionnaire never quite grasps the epic scope it's reaching for, it remains one of his best films, a handsome, exciting, and surprisingly grim desert adventure. --Sean Axmaker

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