How well does an early 90s Van Damme film hold up?
After reaching their high point in the 1980s, action movies seem to become a parody of themselves in the 1990s. The decade which saw the rise of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis was followed by one which saw the release of The Last Action Hero, a movie that spoofed the entire genre.
Released in early 1991, Lionheart stars Jean-Claude Van Damme, who had his breakthrough in the action genre at the tail end of the 80s. The movie is the story of Lyon, who deserts the Foreign Legion to come to Los Angeles and care for his recently deceased brother’s wife and sister. In order to raise money, Lyon is forced to join an underground fighting circuit.Lionheart moves at a rapid pace that becomes patterned very early. Lyon fights, talking segment to develop story, Lyon fights, talking segment, fight, silly montage, fight, talking segment, fight, and so on. The action takes up a vast majority of the movie which is wise since the moments that rely on acting range from generic to laughably bad. In particular, a scene involving Lyon’s new best friend, Joshua is laugh out funny in its overacting.
The music is very odd. In action movies, there tends to be loud drums or screaming guitars to enhance the action and the occasional jazzy tune to inform the audience when something romantic is happening. Lionheart goes an entirely different route and has the movie scored with a sexy saxophone solo playing in almost every scene. This may be due to the famous use of saxophone in Lethal Weapon, but here it is just silly. The scenes that do not use erotic sax instead use the standard synth for the goofy montage and innocuous rock for the climatic fight scene.A running joke in movies is the black person always dies first. Lionheart takes this a step further by having multiple fights involving African Americans and having them lose just about every single fight. The only time a black man wins a fight is when he is fighting another black man. There is also a scene in which Joshua is just standing around eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and he even makes an extremely poor life altering decision during the movie’s climax. Intentional or not, these scenes stand out.
Lionheart is not meant to be a genre changing film and is more about having a good time. It succeeds, if just barely. The fight scenes are unsurprisingly well done and there is actually a good build to the final fight. The fights get longer as the film progresses, introducing the audience to more of Lyon’s repertoire. There are plenty of plot holes, but if you take out the movie and just watch the fights, there is actually a fun best of Van Damme collection.
Lionheart clearly has one goal in mind: accentuate Van Damme’s martial arts and downplay his acting. The movie accomplishes this with some fights that get the job done, even if they were a little played out by 1991. Where the movie fails are its attempt at a story. A plot that includes revenge, retribution, underground fighting, and the French government is overstretching in a movie about illegal fist fights.