Sterling // 1998 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // June 27th, 1999
A Fugitive from a killer. A remote outpost. A fight to the death.
Legionnaire was much, much better than I would expect a Jean Claude Van Damme direct to video epic to be.
Legionnaire had some good qualities about it. Some really, really good qualities. Lets start with the outstanding work done by Sterling Entertainment. This disc is the first in their Millennium Series of special editions. What a job this group did with the extras on this disc. It included: graphically interesting and semi-animated menus which were pretty cool; theatrical trailer; interviews with the cast and crew; a trivia game revolving around the Foreign Legion; archive photos of the French Foreign Legion; a section on weapons used by the French Foreign Legion; an audio commentary by the writer of the film; an audio commentary by Douglas Porch, author of "The French Foreign Legion"; full screenplay with direct scene access (DVD ROM); and lastly; internet connections to web sites (DVD ROM).
Wow, I'm out of breath just thinking about all that. The extras were really cleverly done. I was duly impressed to say the least. What I like the most is the inclusion of some historical data and perspective giving us some background on the creation, purpose and nature of the Foreign Legion. Not a big history buff, I actually learned a great deal watching these extras. I wish more studios would think like this, especially the majors. Usually, anything that is not related to selling their product is not included on a disc. This DVD was a refreshing change.
The story has some serious weak spots. Van Damme (Alain Lefevre) plays a boxer who is living the life of a playboy. We meet him in a nightclub where he is bought off by a mobster to take a dive in his next fight. It just so happens that this mobster is mistreating the love of Lefevre's life, so he decides to betray the mobster. He wins the fight and tries to get to the train station to run to the Americas with his love, but his plan is spoiled and he is on the run. In order to escape the bad guys, he joins the French Foreign Legion and is shipped off to North Africa.
During training he meets up with a mangy group of renegades (a historically accurate portrayal of a typical early 1900s Legionnaire supposedly). I won't give any more of the plot away. However, my only real problems were with the setup described above. Once the "action" moves to the sands of North Africa, I was actually entertained quite well and found the rest of the film somewhat believable.
Van Damme does a decent, if uninspired, job of portraying Lefevre. This is quite a bit outside his usual range, with not a single roundhouse kick being thrown. But he does a decent job. Let's face it, Jean Claude is never going to win an Oscar for best actor. But he certainly has his core audience. The problem is that this film was really quite a stretch for him and might not have attracted his core audience, which is why, undoubtedly, it was released direct to video. This bypassed the critics' chance to inform the public of this fact and the studio probably figured some folks would just grab it at the video store anyway, simply because it stars Van Damme.
All that said, this was a pretty entertaining movie. The production values were quite high for a direct to video release. Director Peter McDonald does a nice job f working within a slim budget. The video is pretty fine for a letterbox presentation too. Colors were very rich and solid, as was the black level. There were a few trouble spots, as usual. But they were far fewer than on many discs we have seen. All in all, the video was really quite nice.
The audio was also good. The film includes quite a few explosions at the outpost, which give one's subwoofer a decent workout. I would have liked to see a full 5.1 sound track for this film, but I understand how difficult it can be living within a budget. Choices must be made, and this was one of them.
As I said above, my main problem was with parts of the story. The setup was just a bit much to be believed. Once past this initial half-hour, though, the story opens up into the realm of believability and things roll along quite nicely. This is certainly no Lawrence of Arabia, but it is a decent film, surprisingly.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised and I think you may be too. The extras on this disc are fantastic. The production values are quite high given the budgetary constraints placed on the director. Don't have too high expectations and you might really enjoy this film. But, do not expect a kickboxing action flick, because you will be very disappointed. This is Van Damme's attempt to stretch outside his usual modus operandi. He succeeds to a degree. Give this film a shot. You might be surprised. Worth a rental, if you can find it. I can't wait to see Sterling's next installment of the Millennium Series.
The studio and disc are acquitted. Van Damme gets probation until he serves up another great action flick (which shouldn't be too far off). The director certainly deserves another shot at some better acting talent and a better story.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary
* Interviews with Cast and Crew
* Rare Footage with Legionnaires in Combat