There's something really weird about Jean-Claude Van Damme: a sort of wide-eyed puppy-like innocence which provides a striking and satisfying contrast when he leaps fifteen feet into the air and starts kicking people in the head. He has a tendency to look naive, indeed clueless, which I don't suggest is a bad thing: it often suits the characters he's playing and it's a scratch more interesting than a soulless and robotic killing machine or indeed any kind of villain (VD rarely plays the bad guy and on the occasions that he does, he's usually playing the good guy as well, either as twins - Maximum Risk, Double Impact - or clones - Replicant). Like Seagal, he perhaps hasn't weathered the years as far as a theatrical career is concerned, having not had a film released to UK cinemas since his exploding trousers movie Knock Off in 1998 (apart from the self-referential arthouse offering JCVD and now a voice-over in Kung Fu Panda 2), but he tends to be better at the martial arts than Seagal.
Van Damme's first film to go straight to video in the UK, Legionnaire (made in 1998) is basically Beau Geste again although to be honest it's closer to Carry On Follow That Camel. JC is a boxer in 1920s France who won't take a dive and, convinced he's lost his girl to the gangsters, joins the Foreign Legion to be shouted at by Steven Berkoff: soon they're assigned to traipse halfway across Morocco to relieve a fort under attack from the Rifs - the unified Berber tribes. There are several fierce battle sequences, and JCVD's second chance in life is not helped by the reappearance of the gangsters who want him dead for not diving in the opening reels....
Curiously, Legionnaire gives Van Damme no opportunity to show off his martial arts prowess: all the fighting is done with bolt action rifles or heavy machine guns, and the unarmed combat is either Queensberry boxing or simple brawls. The undoubted highlights of the movie are the well-mounted battle scenes with the Rifs which, horselovers take note, include many horses tripping and falling into the sand. It's also surprisingly cast with unlikely Brits: David Hayman turns up for one scene as a one-eyed recruiting sergeant, Jim Carter is the chief gangster (presumably French with a name like Lucien Galgani but sounding exactly like Jim Carter), and Nicholas Farrell has a substantial role as the ex-British Army gambling addict looking for honour.
It's a bit of a hokey old idea - does the French Foreign Legion still stir schoolboy dreams of adventure? Still, with its lovingly photographed sandscapes, it's visually quite nice, the action scenes are fine (director Peter MacDonald had also made Rambo III, another desert-based war movie with Steven Berkoff) and yet it doesn't entirely work. The fate of the chief villain Carter is left unmentioned, it's presumed JC will find the girl and they'll set up their dream home in America but that's also left for the viewer to decide. But it's a JCVD film without the kickboxing, a standard ingredient in his movies (although he does get to show off his bum again in the communal shower scene). Sadly, the UK DVD appears to be in the wrong ratio (1.78 rather than 2.35). And it loses a star for its misplaced apostrophe in the opening crawl, talking about the Legion and it's soldiers. Sorry to be anal about punctuation, but I learned to speak and write English properly (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) and that kind of thing really annoy's me.