Release Date: January 11, 1991
Genre: Action, Drama, Crime
Director: Sheldon Lettich
Writers: S.N. Warren (Earlier Screenplay), Jean-Claude Van Damme (Story & Screenplay) & Sheldon Lettich (Screenplay)
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Harrison Page, Deborah Rennard, Lisa Pelikan, Ashley Johnson, Brian Thompson
WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW
It’s been a while since I reviewed a movie with an 80s action star. I didn’t want to do another Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal nor Dolph Lundgren movie since I’ve done one of each. I combed through the list of action stars and one name shocked me as I’ve never reviewed any of his movies for the site yet. The person I’m referring to is the Muscles from Brussels himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme. JCVD was a prolific action star with good looks, kick ass moves and the master of the splits that would make men cringe. Going through is filmography one movie stood out as a perfect film to present since it doesn’t seem to find a whole lot of love in the movie review community. For this review, we look back to 1990 and the film, Lionheart.
In the movie Lionheart, Van Damme plays Lyon Gaultier, a solider in the French Foreign Legion stationed in Djibouti. He receives a delayed letter from his sister-in-law in Los Angeles regarding his brother in the hospital after a drug deal gone bad. After being denied leave, Lyon deserts the legion and escapes in a Jeep. Wandering the desert, he gets work as a tramp steamer which the boat he is working on is heading for the United States. He arrives in New York City instead of Los Angeles. Penniless and with no way of getting to his brother in time he comes across an illegal street fight ring led by a man named Joshua (Harrison Page). Lyon participates in a match which he wins (of course) and earns money. Seeing the potential, Joshua takes Lyon to meet a woman named Cynthia (Deborah Rennard) who runs an organized street fight for the rich. Impressed by his fighting skills Cynthia sponsors him a flight home. Unfortunately, Lyon is too late as his brother has passed. He agrees to fight for Cynthia to bankroll an account to give money to his sister-in-law Helene (Lisa Pelikan) and his young niece Nicole (Ashley Johnson). Unbeknownst to Lyon, members of the French Legion have arrived in America to apprehend him to be Court Marshalled for desertion. Lyon must save his family as fast as possible before he is taken into custody.
Directed by Sheldon Lettich who wrote the screenplay alongside Van Damme, Lionheart is one of the standout films that he’s done. It’s more than a movie with a ton of fights. It’s a film that has heart. Van Damme is looking for redemption for abandoning his brother for a long time and trying to make right with what’s left of his family. The sacrifices he makes in the film from deserting his unit to his body being bloodied, bruised and broken are displayed with determination and will.
The performances in the movie are good and convincing. Van Damme naturally evolves the character of Lyon as a loner who slowly breaks out of his shell and works to make amends to his family and generate an unlikely partnership/friendship with Joshua. Harrison Page does a great job playing Joshua. Although he is a recruiter for Cynthia and is all about the money, he does look out for Lyon and helps him connect with his sister-in-law and niece. He is also credited with giving Lyon the nickname “Lionheart” which he gets known by through the fighting world. Deborah Rennard as Cynthia is seductive and manipulative. She tries to use Lyon as her personal boy toy, but Lyon rejects her advances. She only sees dollars with him and doesn’t care for his well-being. Lisa Pelikan gives a heartbreaking emotional performance as Helene who is angry at Lyon for not making it home on time to see his brother one last time and struggles to find forgiveness, but essentially allows him back into her life and Ashley Johnson was cute as a button as Nicole. There’s an appearance from Brian Thompson as Cynthia’s bodyguard/right hand man Russell, but he doesn’t get a lot of screen time. He appears only when Cynthia appears except for one scene.
The fights in the film are engaging and enjoyable as Van Damme goes up against some of the best each with different builds and abilities. I loved the fact they used different locations for each fight including an underground parking garage complete with cars parked in a circular format to represent a cage, a near empty swimming pool with just enough water to dunk the fighters in and even a racquetball court. It felt like I was watching two gamers play Street Fighter.
The plot is simple and there’s no real twists or turns. There is some predictability near the third act which I won’t go into in order to avoid spoiling anything. Lettich does a great job keeping the audience focused going from a fight to a dramatic scene and then to a character scene, etc. There are a few moments that drag out, but most of it comes from the first quarter of the film.
Lionheart would rank as my third favorite Van Damme film only to Bloodsport and Hard Target. It’s the most human film of his body of work that we won’t see a performance like that again until his semi-biographical movie JCVD (another classic). The film went on to gross $24.3 million on a $6 million budget which is a nice chunk of change. It’s a dramatic actioner with gladiator combat that encompasses the spirit of not just a warrior, but a man.
Trivia (Per IMDB)
- A trailer for the film, seen on various VHS releases from Imperial Entertainment, which produced the film, makes absolutely no indication of Universal Pictures’ involvement, since Universal would only pick up the U.S. distribution rights later in the process.
- Filmed after Death Warrant (1990) despite being released prior.
- A sequel was planned but never materialized.