MOVIE REVIEW : Karate-Themed ‘Lionheart’ Is a Swift Kick in the Teeth

In “Lionheart,” (citywide), a sub-Schwarzenegger thriller supposedly set in the illicit bare-knuckle fight game, Belgian karate expert Jean-Claude Van Damme gets ample scope for his most unique talent: the ability to whirl around in a circle with his foot in the air and kick somebody in the head.

Zonk! Van Damme creams a snarling street punk. Whonk! He bashes a bare-chested Scotsman in kilts. Blonk! He blasts a blond California surfer. Ka-bonk! The murderous behemoth Attila (Abdel Qissi), takes one in the chops. One by one, increasingly colorful, vicious and improbable villains wade into the fray, flail uselessly, then one by one, topple over--with Van Damme’s foot in their mouths.

Being able to kick people in the head, at least while they’re standing up, is no negligible talent--though “Lionheart” is a pretty negligible movie. It has that grotesquely off-scale exaggeration of many post-'80s action movies. Within 15 minutes we’re asked to believe that Van Damme’s Lyon, or Lionheart, has learned of his brother’s burning by whacko L.A. drug peddlers, gone berserk at a North African Foreign Legion Post, escaped from three jailers--naturally, by kicking them in the head--stolen a jeep and rammed it through a fence, escaped on foot across the desert, worked across the ocean as a stowaway stoker and then escaped again by diving into New York Harbor.

Is he tired? Is he even wet? Wandering into the Big Apple, in a remarkably short period of time, the indefatigable Lyon actually becomes a hot new bare-knuckle boxer, acquires a motormouth manager and, faced with a half-dozen muggers, kicks them upside.

Is this a comedy? Not quite. The absurdities of “Lionheart,” and many recent action movies, are less a matter of conscious wit than what might be called paranoia-reversal. The scriptwriters, first-time director Sheldon Lettich (Sylvester Stallone’s collaborator on “Rambo III”) and Van Damme himself, dream up the worst things that could possibly happen. Then they try to kick their way out of them.


Meanwhile, the old archetypal hooks keep spinning out: Van Damme’s Lyon broods and his black buddy-manager, Joshua (Harrison Page) jabbers in a hot-wire “soul man” badinage; Page’s energetic performance is the movie’s one minor triumph. Lyon shows his tender side: caring for the winsome widow and adorable tot his brother left behind. Lyon wards off lust: spurning the silken, deadly advances of fight entrepreneur Cynthia (Deborah Rennard). And, over and over, Van Damme gets his kicks.

As an actor, Van Damme poses well, registering a kind of winningly boyish torment. As a writer-director, Lettich plays it safe and sloppy, saving any stray skill for the rapid-tempo cutting on the matching head-kicks. As Lyon’s ladies, Rennard and the talented Lisa Pelikan sneer heartlessly or smile winningly. As a movie, “Lionheart” (MPAA rated R) isn’t much. But it’s recommended to anyone who has been kicked in the head too often, and wants vicarious revenge.


Jean-Claude Van Damme: Lyon

Harrison Page: Joshua

Deborah Rennard: Cynthia

Lisa Pelikan: Helene

A Sunil R. Shah/Imperial Entertainment presentation of an Ash R. Shah/Eric Karson production, released by Universal Studios. Producers Ash R. Shah, Eric Karson. Executive producers Sundip R. Shah, Anders P. Jensen, Sunil P. Shah. Screenplay by Sheldon Lettich, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Cinematographer Robert C. New. Editor Mark Conte. Costumes Joseph Porro. Music John Scott. Production design Gregory Pickrell. Art director Brian Densmore. Set Designer Woodward Romine, Jr. Set Decorator Kerry Longacre. Sound Ryder Sound Services. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (Graphically violent fight scenes and for strong language.)