A Wallisian rugby prop weighing in at 111 kilos, with a massive battering-ram body and eyes that glower from behind his rugged, tribal-tattooed hide, Toki Pilioko has the sort of physique Hollywood casting agents inevitably pigeonhole in one of two roles: the dark-skinned drug dealer, or else that over-muscled thug who hefts oil barrels over his head and chunks them Donkey Kong-style at a white-guy action hero. He’s “the heavy,” and for once, a movie demonstrates the insight and sensitivity to look past that rough-and-tumble exterior to discover the conflicted soul within. That movie is Sacha Wolff’s impressive feature debut, “Mercenary,” which plays with such a character’s outsider status within the context of an easily relatable sports story — the rare kind of ethnographic portrait insightful enough to work on the festival circuit, while still accessible enough to excel in a popular commercial context.
Pilioko plays Soane, a rugby player from Nouméa, a small town in New Caledonian recruited by a bigger and even more intimidating looking Pacific Islander named Abraham (Laurent Pakihivatau, one of two real-life Wallisian rugby players in the mostly non-pro cast) to come to France and join a professional team. In France, as in the rest of the world, sports fans desperately want to see their local teams win, although the irony of that obsession has been the fact that in order to gain an edge, players are recruited from the far corners of the earth and look nothing like the faces cheering in the stands (resulting in controversy when such foreign players refuse to recognize the national anthem).
Technically speaking, Soane is French, though hailing from such a remote colony, he’s seldom recognized as such. To nearly everyone he meets in France — where a misunderstanding about his weight leaves him without a contract, relying on a relative (Mikaele Tuugahala, the other Wallisian player) to introduce him to a second-rate, small-town rugby team — Soane is little more than hired meat, which is the genius of the film’s title: Like some sort of hired thug, he’s been brought over for one reason and one reason only, to play rugby, and beyond that, people hardly give him a second thought.
But Wolff has done something remarkable through the simple choice of centering a film around such a character. Apart from the opening scene — a slow widescreen tracking shot gazing out over the shoulders of Abraham and a fellow talent scout at the rugby pitch — nearly every scene is shown from Soane’s perspective, drawing us into his mental space through a combination of Dardenne-style faux-doc handheld techniques and a polished, Hollywood-slick shooting style.
Like Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s more subtly scripted “Sugar” (which viewed American baseball through the eyes of a similarly Martian remove), “Mercenary” offers a unique chance for Western audiences to see their own country through an outsider’s eyes — though in this case, it’s hard to imagine anything in France being better than the “slum” Soane leaves behind, given the incredible island panorama that surrounds the little seaside hut he shares with his fisherman dad Léoné (Petelo Sealeu) and similarly ready-to-leave younger brother.
As if to offset the sheer foreignness of his locations and characters, Wolff has a tendency to fall back on disappointingly conventional narrative devices at times, setting up simple-minded conflicts between Soane and his father, who effectively disowns Soane when the “boy” mentions the idea of leaving home, and also toward Abraham after their deal sours and the recruiter’s mobster-like personality reveals itself. While the sporting world provides a backdrop, the film concerns itself very little with the game itself, chasing excitement off the field, then off-setting it with the low, wind-like hum of Luc Meilland’s electronic score.
Wolff can’t resist introducing a romantic subplot, though there’s a unconventional charm to the way Soane, too thick-headed to be anything but genuine, recognizes the Rubenesque beauty in local “fatty” Coralie (Iliana Zabeth). Never mind that she’s already hooked up with nearly everyone on the team, or even that she’s pregnant with another guy’s child: Soane has abandoned his family back home, and she embodies his sincere wish to build a new one in France. This may be Wolff’s fiction debut, but the director (who studied at La Fémis, France’s leading film school) does as fellow grad (and “Mustang” helmer) Deniz Gamze Ergüven did the year before, applying a slick Euro style to his relatively little-seen locale, filling what could pass for a Hollywood canvas with genuine ethnocentric color.