Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the Big Deal?
Lionheart (also known as AWOL: Absent Without Leave) is an action film released in 1990, and it was directed by the debuting Sheldon Lettich, who co-wrote the film alongside its star Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Muscles From Brussels plays a member of the French Foreign Legion who breaks free from his command to travel to America in order to deal with the fallout after his brother is almost killed by drug dealers. The film also stars Harrison Page, Deborah Rennard, Lisa Pelikan and Brian Thompson. The film marked the second of many collaborations between Van Damme and Lettich, who had earlier worked together on Van Damme's breakout picture Bloodsport. The film proved to be a success in the US, earning more than $24 million and even prompting speculation of a sequel. However, critical reception was largely negative at the time, although fans now believe that this is one of Van Damme's better efforts.
What's It About?
Lyon Gaultier is a member of France's legendary Foreign Legion, based at a desert camp in Djibouti in East Africa. Upon hearing the news that his brother has been viciously attacked and set on fire in Los Angeles, Lyon decides that he has to abandon his regiment and head to the US to help care for his brother's family. After escaping the clutches of the Legion, Lyon makes his way to the coast and boards a ship heading to New York. The Legion, anticipating Lyon's eventual destination, decide to send their own men to America in order to bring Lyon back to be court-martialed.
After arriving in New York with no money to his name, Lyon finds himself involved in a street fight organised by homeless tramp Joshua Eldridge. After easily dispatching his opponent, Joshua senses an opportunity to make some serious money at an illegal fighting tournament operated on behalf of wealthy patrons by socialite Cynthia Caldera. For Lyon, the money will help him get to Los Angeles and his sister-in-law Nicole but the Legion are never that far behind...
What's to Like?
Sometimes, an action film will be reliant on a complex story or fantasy element to give it an edge against what is arguably one of the most crowded sections of the market. Think of stuff like The Matrix, a modern and CG-enhanced action sci-fi shooter with philosophical trimmings. Lionheart is not one of those films - in fact, it almost seems proud of its simplicity. The film's narrative doesn't stray too far from video game stereotypes of just giving our hero a smorgasbord of opponents of varying sizes and fighting styles to smash his way through. No frippery here, just fists and kicks which as any fan of Van Damme will tell you is all you need because it's what he does best.
Thankfully, the film has a bit more to recommend than Van Damme's youthful physique and bare ass in one, totally unjustified scene. Harrison Page works hard to make his character stand out, throwing out insults and barbs as if he was getting paid per put-down while Rennard smoulders as the blatant femme fatale of the piece. And despite the dumb-as-rocks set-up, the film provides a decent selection of baddies for Van Damme to overcome from. But honestly, I'm struggling to conjure up any real positive vibes for this beat-em-up which is as uninspired a slugfest as I've ever seen. If you like your action films dragging their knuckles along the floor then this is the film for you.
- The film was released under one of five titles, depending on the territory the film was released in - Lionheart, AWOL: Absent Without Leave, Full Contact, Leon or Wrong Bet. The reason for this was because the film was actually produced independently and sold to a number of distributors around the world, who then chose the film's title.
- The film marked the cinematic debut of actress Ashley Johnson who was best known as Chrissy Seaver in the US sitcom Growing Pains. She is now widely known as a voice actor in a number of video games including the critically acclaimed Last Of Us series as protagonist Ellie.
- French kickboxing champion Olivier Gruner is thanked in the credits after he gave the filmmakers background research on the Foreign Legion. He was unable to appear on screen as he was busy starring in his first film Angel Town.
What's Not to Like?
Unfortunately for Lionheart, there is little else to recommend beyond Van Damme's physical prowess. He is as bad at acting (at this point in his career, anyway) as he is good at fisticuffs, generating little in the way of sympathy or empathy. His monotone, heavily accented delivery feels like a parody of fellow muscle man star Arnold Schwarzenegger, meaning that it's very difficult to take any of this nonsense seriously. Sadly, his writing skills are also somewhat sub-par - this film takes the most bare bones approach to story-telling I've ever seen, relegating it to maybe the third or fourth most important thing about the film. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense and what little exposition is in the film is butchered beyond belief.
The film's quality and direction is as uninspired as its screenplay with hardly anything that sticks in the memory. Even the soundtrack, a horribly cheesy soft-porn sax-and-synth combination, does little besides put the viewer off. The film even manages to waste an appearance by B-movie baddie stalwart Brian Thompson, giving him little to do besides look menacing besides Rennard who plays her part like a Cruella de Vil cosplayer. The film looks and feels like a straight-to-video product, lacking in any real quality at any practical level. I like my action movies but this simply didn't move me in any way. Van Damme has done better films than this which doesn't even compete with his first film Bloodsport.
Should I Watch It?
Strictly one for Van Damme diehards, Lionheart underwhelms with its ridiculous premise, general lack of quality and muted performance from its inexperienced star. The fight scenes are the only reason to watch the film but to be honest, kickboxing films are all pretty much the same anyway. Is there a real reason why you would choose this film over other films in Van Damme's career - or even other films by other actors? Is there something in this film that you simply won't find anywhere else?
Tragically, the answer is no.
Great For: undemanding fight fans, padding out your DVD collection, ruining your street cred by having it in your DVD collection
Not So Great For: making Van Damme an A-list star, The Foreign Legion, remaining in your long-term memory
What Else Should I Watch?
Van Damme has had a long career with decidedly mixed fortunes, from the heights of films like Universal Soldier and Timecop to forgettable trash like The Order to his redemptive enshrining in action film history as the baddie in The Expendables 2. These days, with years of hard work taking their toll, Van Damme has reduced his appearances to the occasional cameo or voice work such as his appearance in Kung Fu Panda 2. His peak was undoubtedly during the mid Nineties with starring roles in popular films like Street Fighter, Sudden Death and his dual roles in Maximum Risk.
The Nineties were a real boom-time for action films, many emerging in the wake of earlier films like Commando and Die Hard. Stars like Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves became huge stars while others like Mark Dacascos, Jet Li and Jackie Chan began hitting their peaks as well. Basically, there are no shortage of action films for fans to choose from and many films have become synonymous with the genre and familiar in their own right: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Speed, Rush Hour, Desperado. These are the type of action films I prefer, something that offers a bit more than just heavily choreographed fight scenes. I want an engaging story, captivating performances and a soundtrack that doesn't make me want to take a shower afterwards.
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Lyon "Lionheart" Gaultier
Stefani Warren (as S. N. Warren), Sheldon Lettich & Jean-Claude Van Damme
Release Date (UK)
21st September, 1990
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