Film review: Lionheart

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 15 1991 12:00 a.m. MST

Being better than most doesn't make "Lionheart" good by any means, but it does have more story than one expects from violent musclebound epics these days — and it's all the more surprising when you know that star Jean-Claude Van Damme came up with the story and co-wrote the script.

To be sure, "Lionheart" is formula stuff most of the way, but it does turn a cliche on its ear from time to time . . . and after you've watched a few dozen of these Arnold Schwarzenegger Wannabe pictures, any little twist is something to be grateful for.

The film opens with Van Damme's brother being set on fire by drug dealers, but whether he was a dealer himself or merely a user — or, for that matter, why he was attacked by this gang — is never explained.

Van Damme is in North Africa serving the last six months of a hitch in the French Foreign Legion when he gets word of the incident, so he goes AWOL — we aren't supposed to care since the Legion seems to be full of nothing but sadistic boneheads, anyway — and stows away on a steamer headed for America.

Once he gets near New York harbor, he jumps ship and tries to come up with some way to get enough money to head for California. Fortuitously, he comes into contact with a jive-talking illicit-street-fight promoter (Harrison Page). Eventually, he links Van Damme up with a beautiful, sadistic organizer (Deborah Rennard) of no-holds-barred, no-rules, bare-knuckle fights that secretly entertain the decadent rich across the country.

The minute he makes it to Los Angeles, Van Damme looks up his brother — but he's too late. And since the brother's murderers are in police custody, a revenge plot is out.

So Van Damme is soon kicking the teeth out of various contenders — ranging from a Scotsman in a kilt to a long-haired surfer — earning money to help keep bill collectors away from the door of his widowed sister-in-law (Lisa Pelikan) and her young daughter.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Legion has sent two lunkheads to bring him in, and it isn't long before they link up with Rennard. Worse, Van Damme is suffering silently from broken ribs when he's booked to fight a virtual giant, named, of course, Attila.

Will Van Damme win, or will he be splattered all over the pavement?

If you have to ask that, maybe you've been kicked in the head a few too many times.

The fight scenes, which are all Van Damme fans care about anyway, are pumped up by swift edits, which repeat snippets over and over so that it's the MTV equivalent of boxing, and punched-up volume control that adds bangs, pows and zonks wherever possible.

As for Van Damme, he uses his patented high-flying kicks so often one half-expects his leg to fly off. He also speaks very little dialogue and displays all the acting talent of a bookshelf.

Not that anyone who pays $5 for this one is going to care.

Of its type, there have been much worse. And come to think of it, some of them have starred Van Damme.

It's rated R, of course, for violence, profanity, nudity (a shot of Van Damme's derriere) and drug use.