Imagine if Jacques Audiard had tried to make an inspirational sports movie, and you’ll get an idea of what it’s like to watch Mercenary (Mercenaire), a tough-as-nails French thriller about a Polynesian rugby player who tries to go pro and nearly gets killed in the process. Featuring a riveting lead turn from newcomer Toki Pilioko, this assured, stylistically adept feature debut from writer-director Sacha Wolff should garner sufficient international attention after premiering in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight.
Taking as its subject a mountain of a young man who has several tattoos, no real neck to speak of, and doesn’t say a word throughout long stretches of the movie, Wolff has certainly given himself a hard nut to crack for this first feature-length effort. But it’s precisely the weighty and stoical presence of Soane (Pilioko) — a 20-something, 250-pound chunk of war flesh — that makes Mercenary work, even if the script plays like a fairly conventional rags-to-riches-to-rags story with an exotic backdrop and spats of violence, including two of the most brutal whipping scenes in recent cinema.
Soane hails from a deeply Catholic Wallisian community perched on the archipelago of New Caledonia, a French collectivity located in the southwest Pacific. His world is made up of men who all look like castmembers of Once Were Warriors, and they’re not the kind of guys you’d ever want to cross in a dark alley or on a rugby pitch.
It’s Soane’s talent as a heavy-duty “prop” — the equivalent of an NFL lineman — that initially captures the eye of ruthless recruiter, Abraham (Laurent Pakihivatau, sporting the most ornamentally tailored beard ever seen on screen), who offers him a position on a team in France. But in order to leave home, Saone will have to face the wrath of his father, Leone (Petelo Sealeu), a bitter alcoholic who carries a rifle at all times and has no qualms about beating either Soane or his younger brother (Maoni Talalua), expressing feelings of abandonment and resentment with a household power cord.
No sooner does Soane barely make it out alive then he finds himself alone and broke at a French airport, with only a Bible and some of his grandma’s money to get by. The club he was supposed to play for doesn’t want him, so he seeks help from a distant relative (Mikaele Tuugahala), who lands him a spot on a midsized squad in the city of Fumel — a place as pleasant-looking as its name suggests.
With lots of blood, sweat and even a few tears, not to mention a healthy supply of steroids given to him by his coach, Saone transforms into a promising young player, although he constantly feels like a fish — or more like a killer whale — out of water in a country that is nonetheless his own. (Part of the fascination of Soane’s character is that he’s as French as those around him and speaks the language perfectly, yet everyone treats him like a foreigner hailing from some sort of distant, savage land.)
But just as Soane makes headway (and head-butts) on the field, while wooing a supermarket cashier (Iliana Zabeth) who seems to have been around the block a few times, his past comes back to bite him — first when Abraham shows up looking to collect an unpaid debt, then when Soane comes to the growing realization that the violent guilt-trip inflicted upon him by his father will keep him forever pinned down.
Wolff has clearly studied the family dynamics of Audiard’s movies, — particularly The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet — where sons are beholden to tyrannical men who make it their mission to deny them freedom. If that theme is handled without much subtlety in Mercenary, with several scenes that toss the issues right in your face, they’re movingly conveyed by Pilioko, who says a lot without speaking at all and whose juggernaut of a body moves through the frame like a steamroller afraid of its own shadow.
His intense performance is amply captured by cinematographer Samuel Lahu (also making his feature debut), with imagery combining the vast island setting with the bland provinciality of rural France. Such a dichotomy — between land and sea, father and son, and two opposing cultures that share the same nationality — is what keeps tearing Soane apart, and he only comes into his own when he lets himself go, launching into a “Haka” (the battle cry made famous by New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team) whose sound and fury is something to behold.
Production companies: Timshel Productions, 3B Productions, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Toki Pilioko, Iliana Zabeth, Laurent Pakihivatau, Mikaele Tuugahala, Petelo Sealeu
Director/screenwriter: Sacha Wolff
Producers: Claire Bodechon, Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb
Director of photography: Samuel Lahu
Editor: Laurence Manheimer
Composer: Luc Meilland
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales agent: Be for Films
In French, Wallisian
No rating, 102 minutes