MVD Rewind Collection Packs Out its Release of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ROCKY
Without Lionheart, Jean-Claude Van Damme never becomes the household name he is to this day. Among his earlier starring roles, it’s perhaps the case that Bloodsport has become the most enduring of the bunch. But Lionheart is where Van Damme becomes noticed by the American studios and charts his course to becoming a headliner and a leading man. And deservedly so. Lionheart is a fantastic piece of entertainment, and Van Damme himself gives a charismatic performance proving he’s not only got the goods for martial arts action, but can also hold his own with drama.
Lionheart was co-written by Van Damme and first-time director Sheldon Lettich. Lettich already had a history with Van Damme in writing Bloodsport, and the two of them have collaborated on many projects since. I adore the film and find that it really succeeds at what it’s going for, which is combining an underground fighting tournament with a pressing family drama that tugs at the heartstrings. It’s all about heart, making it a risky proposition at this early stage of Van Damme’s career. If it had fallen flat it could have strayed over into a kind of self parody. But Lionheart’s cast is filled top to bottom with real pros that stick the landing and make it so effective as a melodrama that it’s easy to make the comparison that this is Van Damme’s Rocky.
Van Damme plays Leon Gautier, a legionnaire who escapes across the sea to America to try to help his brother, who’s been badly burned by some gangsters he’d fallen in with. With some soldiers from the foreign legion on his tail, he tries to reconnect with his sister-in-law and niece (Lisa Pelikan as Helene and the precocious and charming child actress Ashley Johnson absolutely stealing the show as Nicole). Helene sees Leon as an absentee and believes her recently deceased husband went down the wrong path because of Leon’s influence, so she’s not having any of his help. Leon is undeterred, however, and utilizes his street hustler fight manager Joshua (Harrison Page in one of the film’s most standout roles) to both rise in the ranks of the underground fighting ring, and to funnel money secretly to Helene and Nicole. Finally you have Deborah Rennard chewing the scenery as the breathy, leggy, femme fatale of a villain Cynthia, who rules the underground fighting circuit and wants a piece of Leon in more ways than one.
While Bloodsport is clearly the more iconic of the two films, Lionheart is actually a fantastic fight film in its own right. As Leon rises through the ranks of the underground fighting ring, he fights a Street Fighter II-esque rogues gallery of characters in a wide array of settings. Lionheart would make a killer 2D fighting game on home video game consoles. You’ve got the kilted guy (in a garage surrounded by cars), the Capoeira guy (in an empty pool), the redneck dude (in a racketball court?), and the final boss Attila (who looks exactly like one of the guys you had to fight a hundred times in the Final Fight video games). These kinds of details aren’t exactly indicators of storytelling acumen, but it does help keep the film visually interesting. And Lettich and Van Damme really perfected their shooting and editing style here in such a way that makes each fight clear, stylish, and exciting. That gimmick where you see a single JCVD spin kick delivered multiple times in an editing burst? That’s used to perfection here.
And the screenplay legitimately does a good job of amping up the drama and tightening the noose around Leon and Joshua. I’ll admit feeling incredulity at producer Erik Karson (who directed Van Damme in Black Eagle and is prominently featured in bonus features on this disc) suggesting Lionheart is a movie unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. This is hilarious because in multiple ways it is EXACTLY like Bloodsport. It just so happens that the devices employed in the screenplays of each film both work like gangbusters. In both films Van Damme beats the odds in an underground fight tournament. In both films he’s AWOL and being pursued by officers tasked with apprehending him. In both films the odds stack against our hero increasingly, tensions rise, and the best man prevails in the end. Lionheart ups the stakes with the desperate grieving family and stands out as a heart-on-its-sleeve melodrama as a result. The cast also heightens the drama across the board in a way not achieved in Bloodsport.
America was hungry for good-guy-on-the-ropes action hero tales like Lionheart in 1990, and Van Damme broke through to a much wider audience with this film. Soon to follow would be big budget studio fare like Universal Soldier, Hard Target, and Street Fighter. Van Damme was a mainstay at the multiplex as I was growing up and I more or less took that for granted among a plethora of ripped and shredded leading men headlining massive action epics. Those times are largely gone now, and the sincere effort, charisma, and ego that it must have really taken to get Van Damme to the heights of his career now merits a lot more respect and appreciation. Lionheart is an excellent piece of popcorn entertainment that maximized its resources and hit a cultural sweet spot, and still works today as an underdog crowd pleaser that might even getting you clapping as the end credits roll.
I’m having a blast watching MVD Rewind Collection come into their own with their Blu-ray releases. Only the 8th title in this new line, we’ve already gotten two Van Damme collector’s editions and I couldn’t be more thrilled to live in this world. Packed top to bottom with interviews featuring all the major cast members (including Van Damme himself), there are literally hours of bonus features and brand new content on this disc. I watched all that stuff first before revisiting the movie itself as I’ve basically memorized this film. It’s all really great supplemental content. Sheldon Lettich comes off as quite sincere and intelligent, and has many wild stories about connections that led to, say, current-mega-producer and Tarantino-collaborator Lawrence Bender appearing in Lionheart in a small speaking role as a rich douchebag that Van Damme gets to threaten.
MVD Rewind Collection is still a little scrappy, and these home video releases aren’t necessarily polished in the way a Criterion disc would be. But none of that matters because they’re putting genuine love and effort into movies that I care about. This is the definitive home video release of Van Damme’s entire filmography at this point. With both the theatrical cut (which looks fantastic) and an extended cut (in which the extended pieces aren’t quite the same HD quality), and both a Blu-ray and a DVD, MVD is clearly offering a product that will make all other versions of this film obsolete. Hours of bonus content, multiple cuts, a commentary track, and even the fun retro slipcover that MVD includes on all their releases all stack up to make Lionheart a must-own for Van Damme fans. One of my most anticipated home video releases of this year, I’m thrilled that this disc lived up to all my expectations and will become one of my most cherished discs in my collection.
And I’m Out.
Lionheart is now available on Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack from MVD Rewind Collection