There’s something old-fashioned about Lionheart, Sheldon Lettich’s 1990 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle. It tells a conventional adventure story, with a good guy fighting his way through a bad business in order to support his family. There’s not an ounce of moral ambiguity and the outcome is never in doubt. And there are spin-kicks aplenty.
By the time the Muscles from Brussels made Lionheart, he had already established himself as an action movie name. Bloodsport and Kickboxer built his mythos and many snobbish critics decided he was worth rejecting. He struggled with English and lacked the intrinsic charisma of a “real actor,” which made him ideal cannon fodder for some and the perfect weapon for others.
Here, Van Damme stars as Lyon. He’s a paratrooper in the French Foreign Legion and he’s stationed in North Africa. His brother is a drug dealer in Los Angeles and he’s burned alive by criminals. Lyon hears of the incident from his sister-in-law Hélène (Lisa Pelikan) and heads to America after deserting the military. Unfortunately, Lyon first ends up in New York after a mix-up on the boat.
While wandering the streets, Lyon discovers a fighting ring and meets Joshua (Harrison Page). One thing leads to another and he enters the fight circuit, hoping to earn enough money to get to LA. He hooks up with Cynthia (Deborah Rennard), a ruthless promoter of these illegal fights, and kicks ass all the way to California. He continues to beat people up and endeavours to support his family.
Lionheart does string along a set of unnecessary complications, with Lyon’s New York arrival hardly important. But Lettich’s movie does well to coax out a set of circumstances that rallies the audience behind Van Damme’s character, who is dubbed a sort of “pretty boy” by the ugly fight world.
Naturally, the fights matter most. And there are plenty of them, with Van Damme working his way through a series of interesting settings and combatants on his way to buying his niece (Ashley Johnson) a new bicycle. He fights a dude in a hollowed-out pool, knocks a guy around inside a circle of cars and takes on the ultimate bad guy (Michel Qissi) in a fight to the finish.
Fans will remember Qissi for his role as Tong Po in Kickboxer. In Lionheart, he serves as the kitty-petting tough who stands in Lyon’s way. The fight is structured as an impossible feat, with the players conspiring against Van Damme’s character. It’s a matter of belief, especially after the hero roars the line about how everyone “bet wrong.”
This isn’t a good movie in any traditional sense and that’s okay. It brims with 1990s action movie stuff, with plenty of slapping and kicking and crotch-punching and bone-breaking and whatever. The score is an intrusive mess from John Scott, with Bill Wray’s “No Mercy” blaring right before the final fight.
Van Damme expands his repertoire by trying out a little “acting” between fights, but his interplay with Page’s delightedly profane Joshua leaves a little to be desired. He doesn’t fare much better with Rennard’s gawking promoter, although there’s some interesting subtext involving her objectification of men.
Of course, objectification is the name of the game. Van Damme even drops the towel in an effort to show yet another side of his character. He’s rejoicing in sex symbol status, pasting his way through the resistance and offering handsome contrast to the other superficial fighters. And the bouts are presented in front of hordes of the opulent, furthering the social layers.
With Lionheart, Van Damme vaults his career to another level. The story is more extensive than his previous efforts and the ass-kicking has moral thrust, giving the conqueror an old-fashioned sincerity behind every whirling kick and punch.