“Got the name, play the game,” jokes Frank Warz after perching atop a steel clothesline pole in a lightning storm. It’s 1975 in Detroit and the recession is over. So is Vietnam. But the future is now for Warz, who can’t get a toehold on the American dream despite his college degree. A hard, class-conscious blue collar of Slavic stock, he endures tough breaks as he fights self-disgust because working his way through college meant bypassing his generation’s rite of passage. It was a war he believes he would have fought well in. So he climbs clothesline poles in storms to get a sense of what he missed.
Warz feels cheated out of a military destiny, buying into the priority of a college education. Sometimes he needs to pose as a decorated veteran to feel like the one he’s positive he would be. Surviving on iron-age sweatshop jobs, estranged from his kids, late on child support, he is also trying to avoid his ex-wife’s vendetta. Then one day a discarded newspaper casually informs him, “The French Foreign Legion is alive and well and living in the south of France.”
Warz’ plague of hard luck suddenly turns god-awful when he gets into a car crash with injuries. He’s blameless but has to run. Later, after passing a self-administered test of nerve, he recalls the newspaper op ed that the Foreign Legion isn’t disbanded. He feels the nudge from his WWI-hero grandfather to be honest with himself. A missed visit from police detectives fires off events that make him race to Paris.
During its hard-edged screening, the Legion introduces Warz to its severe world, which includes the last European colony in Africa, the French Territory of the Afars and Issas—”Djibouti,” for short—a spot of hell, he hears, where the sun hammers rocks until they scream. But the Legion rejects him.
Destitute, facing a fugitive’s homecoming, Warz steps on funds right after he daydreams being paid for an act of heroism. The cash lets him get back on track. Intent on a fulfilling career, he buys an old camera to cover the Legion and follows the 13th DBLE, which is garrisoned in Djibouti. He wants to become a combat photographer. Why not? he reasons, his pics of high school football were admired, war photography being only a couple steps up from that. However, now he fixes his low self-esteem by pretending to be a battle-seasoned “shooter” as well as a war hero.
Traveling through Ethiopia to save money, the narrow-minded Warz has experiences that fail to change his racial and societal bigotries. Some include close calls from nomads and hyena, and one from a young journalist who nearly unmasks him. A bittersweet night with a married Swedish woman follows an unusual photo session with her while a vagabond that appears briefly resembles a dead rock star too much. Then in Djibouti, Warz gets a taste of what he came for as he watches the Legion catch trespassers in a response that almost brings down an airliner. But the real excitement comes after he meets Cassius Lovingood, an African-American and Legion deserter. “Cass” for short.
The fine-featured Cass is convincingly disguised as a Somali sheikh. He’s returning to Djibouti to help his buddy Kerr escape from the Legion on its high holy day. The plan, though audacious, should work; however, it backfires into a racial face-off between Warz and Cass that’s followed by brutal firefights between legionnaires who catch them and a would-be Somali warlord that catches them all. Warz gets the action he’s always wanted, except it transcends anything his fantasies prepared him for, including, of course, the consequences.