Van Dammage Report: Lionheart

Van Damme Lionheart

Lionheart is a film that many Jean-Claude Van Damme fans often cite as one of his best. I’m not so sure I agree.

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. Being a guardian. The underdog … though to a lesser extent than the other elements. 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.)

In it, Van Damme plays Lyon Gaultier, a paratrooper in the French Foreign Legion who goes AWOL once he learns his younger brother is set aflame by gang members when 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.)

It’s a long ways from North Africa to Los Angeles, though, so he stows away on a ship to New York. It’s there that 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 participates in a single match to snag some cash so he can make it cross-country. 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.

He’ll 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 most of the man’s movies. There are only a handful of fights, and only one of them really stands out. It’s a shame, too, as we’re never really given much flavor for this 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. We don’t even get any splits or split kicks.

I suppose 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, really, its heart is in the right place. Van Damme tries really 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.

Lionheart isn’t a bad Van Damme movie, it’s fine. It just lacks a lot of the distinct personality which flavors so many of his better movies.

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.”

Previously on the Van Dammage Report: KickboxerCyborgBloodsport.