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.
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
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
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.