Blu-ray Review: Lionheart (Special Edition) | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, February 28th, 2021  

Lionheart [Special Edition]

Studio: MVD Rewind

Aug 03, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

All-purpose badass Lyon Gaultier (Jean-Claude Van Damme) abandons his punitive Foreign Legion deployment when his brother is killed in drug deal gone bad. Doggedly pursued by his fellow Legionnaires, Lyon hops a freighter to the United States in hopes of getting to his brother’s family in Los Angeles. Instead he finds himself in New York City without a passport or a penny to his name.  Luckily, he has the good fortune to stumble into the one money-making opportunity best-suited for a character played by Jean-Claude Van Damme: underground street fights. With the help of his street-savvy manager (played by Sledge Hammer!’s Harrison Page) and a high-rolling fight broker (Dallas’ Deborah Rennard), Lyon becomes internationally-renowned on the illicit kickboxing circuit under the name “Lionheart,” using his earnings to provide for his brother’s widow and child. Bare-knuckle bouts quickly escalate to full-blown deathmatches as a dispatched Foreign Legion unit closes in on their prey.  

Released in the early weeks of 1991, the underrated Lionheart (a.k.a. A.W.O.L., a.k.a Wrong Bet) came at the moment when Jean-Claude Van Damme the martial arts actor was about to become JCVD the action movie superstar. Initially pigeonholed into playing Soviet baddies early in his career (No Retreat, No Surrender; Black Eagle), the release of Bloodsport in 1988 changed everything. The low-budget fight movie – which Cannon hardly even wanted to release – was a global phenomenon, and turned Van Damme into a bankable commodity. However, it took a while for Hollywood to catch up with his rising stardom; he was still under contract at a couple of the smaller studios (The Cannon Group & Imperial Entertainment) when the big ones came knocking. His two remaining Cannon features yielded the classic Kickboxer and the weird but wild Cyborg; his commitment to Imperial bore Lionheart.

Already accustomed to flexing his muscles on camera, Van Damme had enough clout by this point in his career to do some flexing behind it. Lionheart came out of a story dreamed up by the actor himself, in which he plays the ultimate martial arts good guy: a man who took the fall to keep his brother out of prison and later sacrifices his body to provide for his family. Van Damme was able to bring in his friend (and Bloodsport scribe) Sheldon Lettich not only as its co-writer, but as the film’s director.

The results are vintage Van Damme. For several of his films from this period, JCVD also served as the movie’s fight choreographer. (For Bloodsport and Cyborg, Van Damme even put in uncredited work in the editing room, building up the fight scenes into the main emphasis of those films.) Next to the acclaim he’s received for his splits, kicks, and ass-baring, relatively few give him as much credit as a gifted visual storyteller. (Though the two films will rarely be placed on the same pedestal, Bloodsport’s kumite matches are easily on par with Raging Bull’s thanks largely to Van Damme’s eye for action.) Likewise, the fights in Lionheart serve as mini-stories in their own right, with a clear begin, middle and end (even if they don’t quite align with reality.) Lionheart can feature a battle where the hero takes at least 20 bareknuckle punches to the face and still somehow delivers a coup de grace slow motion kick to come away with the victory. There’s hardly a moment in Lionheart’s fight scenes that’s not thrillingly over-the-top.

Also appearing in Lionheart are a number of familiar faces. Brian Thompson (previously of Terminator and Cobra) plays a prominent goon. Van Damme’s for roommate, Michael Qissi, appears as one of the French Legionnaires on Lyon’s trail; JCVD fans will know him best as the nefarious, brother-murdering Tong Po in Kickboxer. (Qissi’s brother, Abdel, plays the final fighter Lyon faces of against in the film.) Ashley Johnson, who’d go on to play daughter Chrissie Seaver on Growing Pains, plays Lyon’s niece. Future bigwig producer Lawrence Bender, who would a few years later hoist an Oscar for Pulp Fiction, plays a rich douchebag heckler. Tae Bo kingpin Billy Blanks makes a brief cameo to get his ass kicked by Jean-Claude Van Damme, and low-budget action star Jeff Speakman makes an early blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo as a security guard. Frank Dux, whom contributed his “life story” as the basis for Bloodsport’s story, is credited alongside Van Damme as an additional fight choreographer.

MVD Rewind have done a killer job compiling their special features for their Lionheart Blu-ray, managing to land new interviews with Van Damme himself. (It’s a feat that all other recent, retrospective JCVD releases have failed to accomplish – considering they also lured Sho Kosugi out of silence for their Black Eagle release, the label must have some real power of persuasion.) Their new cast and crew interviews measure out to roughly 100 minutes of featurettes that go into incredible detail on multiple facets of Lionheart’s production, with a 15-minute piece spotlighting the fights alone. Additionally you’ll find an older audio commentary for Lettich and Page and about 40 minutes of archive interviews with those two; a “Making Of” featurette, a poster, and the theatrical trailer. This may be a bit much for the casual view to absorb, but huge action movie and/or Van Damme fans will eat it up all day. It’s wonderful to find someone putting this level of care into any classic Van Damme flick, but especially a lesser-celebrated one such as Lionheart. Kudos to MVD, too, for once again nailing the ex-rental VHS aesthetic in their box art.



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August 7th 2018

Thank you for sharing the article. Glad to find the review. It sounds very interesting.

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January 12th 2019

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