Lionheart is a film about altruism and self-sacrifice. In Bloodsport (1988) JCVD used Kumite (one of three main techniques of Karate along with Kata and Kihon). In Kickboxer (1989) he trained the art of eight limbs with Muay Thai, and in Lionheart (1990) he delves deep into the underbelly of street fighting as Lyon – a former French soldier who engages in menacing underground fights to make money for his niece and widowed sister-in-law. The remarkable sequences in a car garage lit by vehicle headlights and underground arenas housing societies elite in attendance, who place substantial wagers on their favorite, are just a cursory glance at the street fights in the film.

Lyon (Jean-Claude Van Damme) kicks Attila (Abdel Qissi) in a scene from the film ‘Lionheart’, 1990. (Photo by Trimark/Getty Images) Universal Pictures

Lyon engages in these clandestine fights for financial gain after hearing the dreadful news that his brother has been murdered in Los Angeles, leaving behind a family without support. Lyon’s sister-in-law, Helene (Lisa Pelikan) blames him for being absent in his brother’s life. Lyon meets Joshua (Harrison Page) – an ex-prize fighter who introduces Lyon to Cynthia (Deborah Raymond); a promoter of underground prize fights staged for wealthy gamblers who place sizeable bets. Lyon requests for the cash he earns to be delivered to Helene by Joshua, underneath the guise of a pseudo-insurance policy his brother left behind.

Jean-Claude Van Damme strikes an opponent in a scene from the film ‘Lionheart’, 1990, Universal Pictures

The nobility of Lyon’s character is ever-present in his actions; he doesn’t seek credibility for himself and merely wishes to support his niece, Nicole, who has grown to love him. His self-sacrifice is an altruistic act. Lyon wants out of the fight game, but Cynthia has other motives by double-crossing him; recruiting a dangerous kill-or-be-killed fighter named Attila (Abdel Qissi) to destroy Lyon’s reign. But, Lyon is a French Legionnaire with cachet; he endured great afflictions throughout his way from North Africa to attend to his family in California, and his heart won’t be the victim of anyone’s underhanded plans.

Universal Pictures (1990)

The prominence of gambling on fights is a root premise involved in a series of JCVD films from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The concept behind the elitist gamblers who seek out underground combat for luxury entertainment is a thesis in Lionheart, after a substantial amount of hard cash is wagered on Lyon. Ultimately, $12m is on the line, and the spread has Lyon as a heavy favorite. But, when Lyon is manipulated by Cynthia, who furtively takes Attila as the pseudo-underdog, she hopes to cash out on the gains of his victory. Ultimately, Cynthia’s unsecured marker is exposed.

Universal Pictures (1990)

Lionheart isn’t a martial arts film; Lyon is a street fighter where discipline and technique do not apply. In the final showdown, the street credibility is emphasized by Lyon fighting in jeans and a t-shirt against Attila, who sports slacks and a tank, in front of hundreds of suits and skirts indulging champagne. The financial payoff is based on the accuracy of the wager. Betting on the line with a tease between fighters encourages betting on both sides, regardless of who favors the odds within the spread. It incentivizes betting on the underdog, which results in vast gains for the gambler. The twist is when Cynthia leads everyone to believe Attila is a sure thing victory for Lyon; when in fact Attila is a killer, going up against Lyon – a man with the heart of a lion.

written by ardalan pourvali

Universal (1990)

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