Sunday, June 2, 2013

Film Review: LIONHEART (1990, Sheldon Lettich)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 105 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Written by Jean-Claude Van Damme, S.N. Warren, and Sheldon Lettich (RAMBO III, BLOODSPORT).  Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Harrison Page (CARNOSAUR, SLEDGE HAMMER!), Deborah Rennard (DALLAS, LAND OF DOOM), Lisa Pelikan (GHOULIES, SWING SHIFT), Ashley Johnson (GROWING PAINS, THE AVENGERS), Brian Thompson ("The Night Slasher" in COBRA, MOON 44, THE X-FILES), Michel Qissi (BLOODSPORT, KICKBOXER), Billy Blanks (THE LAST BOY SCOUT, TAE-BO WORKOUT), Abdel Qissi (THE QUEST, THE ORDER), and cameo appearances by Lawrence Bender (producer of PULP FICTION, KILL BILL, and RESERVOIR DOGS) and Scott Spiegel (Sam Raimi crony, co-writer of EVIL DEAD II, and director of INTRUDER).
Tag-line:  "Too tough to die."  Though I prefer:  "When the streets are a jungle... there can only be one king."
Best one-liner:  "Sometimes life is... is... ugly... and stupid... and mean."   [said expressively by the Muscles from Brussels himself]

The weather's getting nice, and summer's on the way.  Ladies and germs, it's time for some Van Damme!

Some films are more important than mere "films."  ROSETTA gave the minimum wage to children in Belgium.  THE THIN BLUE LINE helped free a man from prison.  HARLAN COUNTY, USA led to better conditions in Kentucky coal mines.  LIONHEART, too, is more than just a movie.  It boldly dared to expose the dangerous, yuppie-kumite full-contact street-fighting circuit that plagued America's upscale parking garages, health clubs, and private pools until 1990:

Let the networking begin– I hope you brought enough Chardonnay for everybody!

I can't tell if that's a squash court or a racquetball court.  Or are they the same thing?

Hurry it up, already– I need to be home in time for THIRTYSOMETHING!

They even used yuppie one-liners right before performing their finishing moves–  "Let's do lunch sometime," indeed!

And is that girl who's licking proletarian-kumite-blood off of her chest, there... on a date with Patrick Bateman?  And are they headed to Dorsia afterward? (Actually it's a cameo by PULP FICTION producer Lawrence Bender.)

Anywho, this upstart young Belgian muckraker named Jean-Claude Van Damme decided to write and star in a movie unmasking the cold harsh truths of this savage fighting circuit


and while it did succeed in shutting down this black market brawling for all time, in 2013 we can still take a step back and enjoy it as one hell of an action movie.  So kick back, grab some junk food, put on your THEY LIVE sunglasses, and prepare to appreciate sixteen reasons why LIONHEART is still relevant in a post-yuppie world:

#16.  Van Damme body part introduced before the rest of Van Damme.
Just as in CYBORG (which revealed Van Damme's leg before Van Damme), LIONHEART takes its time revealing JCVD's veiny French Foreign Legion bicep before we actually learn that it's attached to Van Damme.
I've theorized that this is because Van Damme's limber limbs are considered to be more iconic than his face, but that discounts the beauty of Van Damme's magnificent, endlessly sincere smile, pictured below:

Also the sheer brilliance of Van Damme's magnificent, endlessly sincere crazy face, pictured below in all of its eye-bulging, blood-streaked glory:

But I don't want to get ahead of myself.  How 'bout something simple, like–

#15.  Roller skates!

This may not be a Cannon Film, but the sudden, unexpected, and wholly unnecessary inclusion of a man on roller skates reveals the film's true inspiration.

#14.  Full-contact Pool Party!

Uh, wait– what are we watching again?

 #13.  Face grabs!
 Ah, truly the face grab cometh just before the fall.  Nobody grabs JCVD's face and gets away with it.  And note workout master Billy Blanks in the background– his smug expression indicates that he will shortly be blasted in the mouth with Jean-Claude's toes.

 #12. Fashionable gangs!
Another trick JCVD learned from the Cannon Film playbook.  That guy on the far right has got kind of a SCORPIO RISING pattern going on across the back of his jacket, and I feel like there's some CYBORG and COBRA references going on around here, too, somehow.  Speaking of COBRA...

#11.  Brian Thompson.
I've referred to him as the "Klaus Kinski of Cannon Films," though I think "poor man's Dolph Lundgren" or "direct-to-video Rondo Hatton" might work okay, too.
He's not given quite as much to do here as he should.  He's relegated mostly to "corporate bad guy sidekick/semi-bodyguard" type stuff.  My point is that he doesn't get to take on Van Damme in a show-stopping cage match meat-hook battle or anything, so that's a little disappointing.  Still, good to see him.

#10.  Harrison Page as "Joshua Eldridge."
Every Van Damme movie needs a crass, distinctly American, occasionally zany sidekick to stand by him through thick n' thin.  This noble tradition includes heavyweights like Donald Gibb in BLOODSPORT, James Remar in THE QUEST, Haskell V. Anderson III in KICKBOXER, Wilford Brimley in HARD TARGET, and Jean-Claude Van Damme himself in DOUBLE IMPACT.  In the above photographs, Harrison Page is pictured gallantly renaming "Lyon" as "Lion," because seriously, what the fuck is a "Lyon?"  

Anyway, Harrison Page fits pretty well in the pantheon of JCVD sidekickery.  (Though that's not literal sidekickery– if the sidekicks actually kicked, that would pull focus from JCVD's patented displays of kicking prowess, except in DOUBLE IMPACT, when the sidekick is JCVD himself.  Whew.  Maybe we should call them "sidepunches?")

#9. The social conscience of Jean-Claude Van Damme.
He gives himself this nice moment where he walks past some homeless people and gets to look sad.  (It also foreshadows how he'll– in a clown outfit– help a bunch of impoverished French orphans in 1996's THE QUEST!)  LIONHEART is a movie whose heart and flying roundhouse kicks will always land in the right place.

#8.  The battle for the social conscience of Jean-Claude Van Damme.
A couple of silk sheets later and the soul of Van Damme hangs in the balance.  Will he fall prey to a PRETTY WOMAN-ish yuppie makeover or will he maintain his street smarts and split-kick integrity?  This leads us to a...

#7.  Shopping montage!
Jean-Claude Vogue Damme goes on a whirlwind, frantically edited shopping montage with his new yuppie handlers.  If LIONHEART was a rock n' roll film, this would be the part of the movie where the band temporarily breaks up, and the lead singer starts a solo career with a really sleazy, soulless manager with slicked-back hair.  Gotta get the band back together, man!

#6.  Jean-Drunk Van Damme.

You have to love Jean-Drunk Van Damme.  I last glimpsed him in KICKBOXER.  It's sort of like a kid who's O.D.'d on a sugar high, and it's sort of like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon.  Whatever it is, keep up the good work!

#5. Abdel Qissi.

Part Andre the Giant, part Ernst Stavro Blofeld, cat-stroking Van Damme crony Abdel Qissi plays the tournament "baddie," as he later would in Van Damme's directorial debut, THE QUEST.  Here, he's "Attila."  In THE QUEST, he's "Khan."  You have to love the lack of creativity/Capcom-style logic at play there.  It's really quite endearing.

#4.  Michel Qissi.

Whoa-ho-ho-NO!  You thought there was only gonna be one Qissi in this flick?  Think again.   This is Michel, probably best known as the evil "Tong Po" in KICKBOXER.  Between 'em, the Qissi brothers have appeared in five JCVD films.  Above, he's seen partaking in an inspirational slow clap.

#3.  A Scottish fighter in a kilt!

In a nod to BLOODSPORT's international kumite of amusing cultural stereotypes, we get this Scottish fighter who wears a kilt.  (When he needed to depict a Scottish fighter again in THE QUEST, he kept the kilt, but upped the stakes with full Tam o' Shanter action!)


#2.  This line of dialogue, which requires no further explanation:

#1. And finally, this exchange, which is basically the entirety of LIONHEART– nay, the entirety of JCVD's career– distilled into four glorious screen grabs:

You got a big heart, LIONHEART.  Nearly five stars.

–Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Yes indeed! It's been way too long since I've seen this one, so I sadly don't have anything to add. However, I think it's still on the ol' Netflix, so it's high time for a revisiting. Great stuff, as always, and I can only hope this review foreshadows more Van Damme to come...? Perhaps even a little "Death Warrant?" Because I can really get behind a movie whose sales pitch is: "It's Van Damme, in prison, with TV's Benson!"

Sean Gill said...


Glad you enjoyed. The summer season will indeed bring more Van Dammage, and I wouldn't rule out the likes of DEATH WARRANT, DOUBLE IMPACT, SUDDEN DEATH, and DESERT HEAT!

J.D. Lafrance said...

"And is that girl who's licking proletarian-kumite-blood off of her chest, there... on a date with Patrick Bateman? And are they headed to Dorsia afterward?"

hahah! that's pretty scary how much Bender looks like Bateman. Wow...

Ah, I'm so glad you mentioned Brian Thompson. Just watched MIRACLE MILE for an upcoming review and it was so great to see him in a rare good guy role. Klaus Kinski wannabe is right! Another one of my fave roles of his in the little-seen early Roland Emmerich sci-fi flick MOON 44 with Michael Pare. He's good in that one, too.

I too, look forward to more Van Damme! Bring it on.

Sean Gill said...


It's almost as if they retroactively knew that a yuppie kumite should have a Patrick Bateman lookalike.

I look forward to your MIRACLE MILE review– and it's always good to see Mr. Thompson. I think you recommended MOON 44 to me once before, and though I haven't yet seen it, it still sounds intriguing!

Jack Thursby said...

You raise a good point about this film's social conscience Sean.

Unfortunately yuppie-kumites were still going 3 years later. Just watch Best of the Best 2.

Haven't seen too many of them recently so maybe they've died out completely now.

John Guedes said...

The yuppie-kumites never died down, they just moved to the 'hood! Case in point is 2009's Fighting which was basically just a Lionheart rip-off with Terrence Howard and Channing Tatum taking over the Harrison Page/Van Damme roles.

Looking forward to more Van Damme reviews!

Sean Gill said...

Jack and John,

Good to hear from you– it's truly devastating to hear that the yuppie kumites lived on even after JCVD's lionhearted muckraking.

I really have no excuse for not having seen BEST OF THE BEST 2. I hope to get on that soon.

Just watched the trailer for FIGHTING– indeed you are right about the debt owed to LIONHEART!