By now we’re starting to get a very good idea of the recurring themes that Van Damme is drawn to and will populate his films with as often as possible. Family. Justice. Acting as a guardian. Lionheart very much adheres to that “formula,” which shouldn’t be much of a surprise given Van Damme co-wrote the story with writer/director Sheldon Lettich. (This is Lettich’s directorial debut, but he previously worked with JCVD when he penned the script for Bloodsport.)
Van Damme plays Lyon Gaultier, a paratrooper in the French Foreign Legion who goes AWOL upon learning his younger brother is set aflame by gang members after a drug deal goes bad. He’s determined to be there for his sister-in-law and niece. (Trivia: The actress who plays Lyon’s niece, Ashley Johnson, is the same who plays the waitress Captain America saves in The Avengers and Mel Gibson’s daughter in What Women Want. She voices and performs the motion capture for Ellie in The Last of Us.)
It’s a long way from North Africa to Los Angeles, though, so he stows away on a ship to New York. It’s there he encounters Joshua (Harrison Page), a fast-talking homeless guy who also happens to hustle guys off the street into participating in underground boxing matches. Lyon agrees to fight in a single match for some cash to fund his cross-country trip. But Joshua, impressed with Lyon’s fighting prowess, insists he accompany his newfound fighter on his trip, as he’s got a contact in L.A. that could fit him into the big time underground fighting circuit.
Lyon will need the cash, too, as once he arrives, his brother is dead and his sister-in-law blames Lyon for disappearing years ago and not showing up when her husband needed him most. She may have rejected him, but Lyon is determined to support them. So he dives deeper and deeper into underground fighting, desperate to keep afloat the only family he has left.
It’s a pretty thin movie, all told, which is kind of saying something in comparison to Van Damme’s movies thus far. There are only a handful of fights, and only one of them really stands out. It’s a shame, too, there’s so much lurking potential in the world of underground fighting, especially considering it’s used as entertainment for L.A.’s wealthy, who take great enjoyment out of watching men savage each other in full-contact, no-holds-barred fights. It seems like this would be the perfect setup to show a series of fights against some colorful adversaries, even if just in montage, but we only get one such showdown when Lyon faces off against some guy in a kilt while surrounded by rich people in their Jaguars. Nary a split or split kick to be found.
Perhaps Lettich and Van Damme wanted to deviate from the “series of colorful opponents in a tournament-style setting,” as it probably (at the time) felt too similar to Bloodsport. But, in retrospect, a little more personality would have gone a long way to making this one of JCVD’s better movies. Because as it stands, the film’s heart is in the right place. Van Damme visibly tries hard to give Lyon and his quest to support his family some real emotion. Its earnest stuff which, again, feels quite rare from this era of action films.
Dammage Report statistics for Lionheart:
Number of splits: 0
Number of split kicks: 0
Reason for being European: None given.
Best line: “Don’t lose your heart, Lionheart, ’cause you’ll never get it back.”