Blu-ray Review: Lionheart (1990)

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You don't put Van Damme in a sweat box!

Forced to desert the French Foreign Legion after his sadistic superiors refuse to give him time off when his brother is nearly burned alive, paratrooper Lyon Gaultier (Jean-Claude Van Damme) escapes from his North African outpost and makes his way to the United States.

In the first of a series of contrivances, after stumbling upon a street fight in New York City, Lyon puts his kickboxing skills to good use in order to net a few quick bucks for a phone call. Recognizing his potential, Joshua (Harrison Page), a former fighter turned talent scout introduces Lyon to his boss Cynthia (Deborah Rennard), who runs an underground fight circuit for her wealthy patrons with matches across the country.

Dubbed Lionheart by Cynthia, although he’d only intended street fighting to be a one time thing, once he finally tracks down his brother’s family (including his adorable niece Nicole, played by Ashley Johnson), Lyon realizes that the best way he can help out is to keep moving up through the ranks in order to pay off all the debts and medical bills left in their wake.

Though relatively light on plot, the little that’s there provides more than enough fuel to not only drive the film forward but – as an essential crossover picture made to help propel the action hero into more mainstream fare – also give Van Damme the opportunity to showcase his softer, dramatic side.

Co-written by director Sheldon Lettich and the star (who revealed in a behind-the-scenes featurette how much he could relate to the arc of the fictional tale on a personal level), while it's undeniably cheesy at times – particularly during the film's flimsy first act which finds Lyon ready to kick ass Rambo style at the drop of a hat – Lionheart gets better as it continues.

Essentially evolving into a live action version of the era's popular video game "Pit Fighter," Lionheart lets Van Damme battle a wide range of opponents in different settings from a nearly empty underground pool to the center of a ring made up of cars shining the men on with their headlights.

Featuring some terrific fight choreography and stunts, Lionheart looks better than ever in this features loaded, retro styled MVD Rewind Collection Blu-ray/DVD double disc set.

While a fight picture is a fight picture, to their credit, Letitch and Van Damme are able to break up the monotony with some fairly decent drama. Still, falling prey to the charismatic lead’s charms and the actor's ego, the film has a strange undercurrent of Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer era homoeroticism mixed with overt come-ons.

Similar to the way that the camera exposes his rear in what would later become a signature (ahem) asset of his filmography, amusingly everyone from Cynthia to a fellow fighter and beyond hits on Lyon and treats him like a sex object, albeit a willing one given his collaborative role.

While needless to say it’s a bit all over the place, Lionheart nonetheless remains one of Van Damme’s strongest early works wherein (much like Lyon), he managed to move up in the ranks, scoring not only a twenty-four million dollar box office return but even more propositions from Hollywood.

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