For roughly a decade, starting with Bloodsport in 1988 and ending sometime around Knock Off in 1998, Jean-Claude Van Damme was one of the world’s top action film stars. He racked up plenty of fun programmers during this time but Lionheart is Schlockmania’s favorite from this era: it boasts a solid story that allowed him to show he could act in addition to providing the expected kicking and punching and shows a little more ambition than you might expect in more than one area.
Van Damme toplines as Leon, a soldier in the Foreign Legion who learns that his brother in the States has been seriously injured in a drug deal gone bad. When the Legion won’t allow him to visit home, he escapes and makes his way back. Wanting to help his brother’s wife Helene (Lisa Pelikan) and daughter Nicole (Ashley), he turns to an underground bare-knuckle fighting syndicate to make some money. He finds a supportive friend in streetwise “manager” Joshua (Harrison Page) and attracts the interest of wealthy fight broker Cynthia (Deborah Rennard). However, the brokers don’t care if the fight game breaks Leon – and he also has to contend with a vengeful sergeant (Voyo Goric) determined to bring him back to the Legion.
Lionheart is a satisfying watch because it knows what the viewer wants and gives it to them while also making room for a few surprises. If you’re expecting a good old-fashioned basher, this film delivers just that: it serves up fight scenes with metronomic reliability. Director/co-writer Sheldon Lettich wisely varies the visual settings for these: interesting choices include an empty swimming pool, a handball court and a garage where the brawlers fight in a circle of headlights formed by the patrons’ sportscars.
The fights themselves are filmed in a straightforward, effective manner, with judicious use of slow-mo and an effective tactic of repeating powerful hits from two different angles. His work is also aided by the film’s secret weapon, a fantastic score by John Scott: his expansive work here effectively combines heroic orchestral material with slick pop and jazz motifs for the city scenes.
However, Lionheart improves on its formula by giving the viewer a story worth caring about between the fights. The main character has a richer-than-usual reason to be involved in the action and dramatic obstacles – an inability to trust, a need to connect with his lost family – that he must overcome outside the ring.
Lettich isn’t afraid to lean into the melodrama, with the result sometimes playing like an update of those boxer melodramas from the ’30s (in a good way). This approach gives Van Damme, who had a hand in devising the story, a chance to develop his acting abilities. He handles the dramatic stuff well, particularly in the last half-hour, and you can see the roots of his later dramatic performance in JCVD here.
Better yet, the story gives Van Damme a capable ensemble to bounce off of. Goric makes a properly stoic foe and Pelikan does effective work as the sister-in-law who is slow to trust Leon. There’s also a sly turn from underrated baddie Brian Thompson as Cynthia’s sleazeball fixer and a good kid-actor performance Ashley Johnson, who fulfills the boxer-melodrama function of the sweet kid who looks up to the brawling hero.
That said, the best work in the support cast comes from Page as the manager who becomes a trusted friend for Leon: he gives a phenomenal performance that delivers effective comedy in the early stretches and grows more dramatic over time. His efforts combine with solid scripting to transform a potentially stock character into an important part of the film: his final moments with Van Damme are genuinely moving stuff.
In short, Lionheart is a must-watch for anyone interested in the highlights of Van Damme’s golden era. It provides the expected action but the fact that everything’s a little better than you’d expect is what really satisfies.