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Retro Isn't New: LIONHEART...

Retro Isn't New: LIONHEART...

…aka Leon, aka Full Contact, aka AWOL, aka Wrong Bet…

My family’s overdue purchase of a VCR when I was 11 years old roughly coincided with beginning of the market transition to dvd as well as the peak years of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s mainstream Hollywood success 1994-1998, remarkably brief for a name that somehow holds legendary status… or so I thought when I spoke of him to a baffled 20 year old recently. Explaining Jean-Claude Van Damme to a person 15 years my minor was a moment both futile and aging, yet there was a spark behind it that surprised my cinephile self. It represented a vital nostalgia that has been brewing of late, sparked and spurred on by labels like Arrow, Rewind and Shout! who play at the distinction between repertory and retro and obliterate the somewhat falsely applied dichotomy of good and bad. Doubtless a cry of freedom from the loosened shackles of my heretofore “impeccable tastes”, this shift in my attention is also a cry of appreciation to the popcorn movies that made me a nascent lover of cinema. I cut my teeth as I watched others get theirs kicked in.

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While my family were valiant video rental connoisseurs, I was a few years behind the curve of Van Damme’s already bountiful resume, up to and including Double Impact (dir. Sheldon Lettich, 1992) which just received a magnificent and unqualified red carpet treatment from the MVD Rewind Collection (review forthcoming). June will also see the release of Van Damme’s near-unanimously panned Dennis Rodman co-starrer Double Team (dir. Tsui Hark, 1997) under Mill Creek’s 90’s Retro VHS line, constituting a “second chance” for myself whose lost it in the shuffle of Mimic, The Peacemaker, Titatnic, Amistad and numerous others of that wildly prolific year. Between these two unlikely re-releases we’re seeing quadruple here at Cinema76 and it seems an ideal opportunity to look back at the film that arguable made Van Damme a household name, defeated all expectations at the box office to earn 8 times its mere $3,000,000 budget, quieted the hullabaloo that the Belgian import couldn’t “act”, and offered a humanistic ballast to a perhaps less-than-substantive oeuvre. That film is Lionheart (dir. Sheldon Lettich, 1990), and heart is indeed it’s greatest asset.

Less ranked against titles like Van Damme’s definitive breakout blockbuster Universal Soldier (dir. Roland Emmerich, 1993), the high-concept Time Cop (dir. Peter Hyams, 1994), his highest grossing release to date, or his bayou brawler Hard Target (dir. John Woo, 1993) MVD Rewind gives the modestly cult-status Lionheart (1990) a generous dual-format edition, more thorough and loving that you’d ever have expected or knew you needed. Overflowing with features like audio commentary by Lettich and co-star Harrison Page, new making-of docs (featuring Van Damme who is notoriously avoidant of such appearances), cast and crew interviews, vintage featurettes, and of course Rewind’s retro slipcovers which have become my unbridled spark of joy, Lionheart is presented as the rising star moment that it was. Its the kind of edition you carve out a lazy afternoon for, which is why I get such a warm feeling from Rewind releases overall, coupled with their feeling of resurgence or perhaps vindication.

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“Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as a soldier drawn into the world of modern-day gladiators fighting for the amusement of the rich in this fast moving action thriller co-written by Van Damme himself! Upon receiving news that his brother in Los Angeles is seriously injured, Lyon Gaultier (Van Damme) deserts the French Foreign Legion from a remote outpost in North Africa” with one goal and no plan, get to LA and make things right. “Fleeing from two of the Legion's security forces who have orders to bring him back at any cost, Lyon reluctantly turns to the illegal, bare-knuckles underground fighting circuit to raise the money he needs to help his brother's family.” (Rewind) Aided by new acquaintance Joshua (Harrison Page [JAG, Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero]), a down-and-out former fighter turned headhunter who organizes meager fistfights in alleys and underpasses with homeless and day laborers, Lyon suddenly finds himself elevated to a lucrative, exploitative and dangerous involving Cynthia, the top 1% sociopathic ringleader of an upper echelon fight club that cares not a whit for its combatants but very much for their gambling profits and amusement. With only his young niece Nicole (Ashley Johnson [Growing Pains, Blindspot]) and his sister in law Helene (Lisa Pelikan [Jennifer, 1978]) in his thoughts, past their rent by months, no prospects, and no father, a fierce loyalty drives Lyon to fatalistic lengths to help them survive with Joshua as his only ally.

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Before Lionheart Van Damme was pegged to play the villain with spin kicks for dialogue (Black Eagle, No Retreat No Surrender), but director Lettich ultimately crafts Van Damme’s own original story titled Wrong Bet into one of intimate friendship, familial loyalty, imperfect lives, redemption and even some social critique in the seeming shape of an “action film”. Lettich makes a convincingly textured and emotional world with just the right balance of pessimism about America’s socioeconomic stratification. After landing in NY as a stowaway on a ship, Lyon emerges from a filthy alleyway populated by homeless in tatters onto a bustling New York street and dismissively sighs “…America”. Shot almost entirely on location in LA, the environs wear their own grime and grit, glitz and glamour, and the film, itself so physically preoccupied, so entrenched in its downtrodden-ness, is all the better served for its tactility. Harrison Page (JAG, Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero) as Joshua is simply unforgettable. His nuanced, inflected, utterly corporeal and wholly convincing Joshua draws inspiration from his own father’s repetitive speech patterns and his observations of the homeless of LA. Ill offer him the supporting actor Oscar in my heart, because he deserved it. His streetwise earthiness and spontaneity play so wonderfully off of Van Damme’s watchful single-minded seriousness. Together with Nicole and Helen, after Helene burns off her rebuke of Lyon’s estrangement and “too little too late” interjection into their lives, there is a satisfying and earned sense of “found family”. That is Joshua’s big win, the discovery of family and loyalty after years of solitary survivalism and fleeting acquaintances.

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Lionheart is one of three films Van Damme would make under Imperial Entertainment (Black Eagle [1990], Sudden Death[1996]). As an emotional blindside and a clear shift in the scale and tone of Van Damme’s career, Lionheart gives him the chance to express some actual range. This is thanks to the intuitions of Director Lettich and a comparatively luxurious 39 day production schedule, resulting in a richer, more dynamic film than I had expected. I hesitate to call it an “action film” because it really isn’t. It is a drama imbued of violence. The fights are integral to the drama, the drama integral to the fights. That’s why it works. That’s essentially the way to make any “action” film work. Make the action contextual, motivated. The stakes have to be real and the hero has to take a hit.

Next up for ‘Retro Isn’t New‘: How MVD Rewind’s DOUBLE IMPACT became my most anticipated release of 2019 despite having never seen it.

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MVD Rewind Bonus Features

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations of the main feature

  • Original 2.0 Stereo Audio (Uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray) and Dolby Digital 5.1

  • Audio commentary by Sheldon Lettich & Harrison Page

  • NEW - 'The Story of 'Lionheart'' (HD) (All new documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew including JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME)

  • NEW - 'Inside 'Lionheart' with the Filmmakers and Cast' (HD) (Featuring interviews with cast and crew including JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME)

  • NEW - ''Lionheart': Behind the Fights' (HD) (Featuring interviews with cast and crew including JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME)

  • 'Making of' featurette (8:53) (SD)

  • Interview with Sheldon Lettich (25:52) (SD)

  • Interview with Harrison Page (13:05) (SD)

  • 'Behind the Scenes of the Audio Commentary' featurette (5:40) (SD)

  • Original Theatrical Trailer (SD)

  • Collectible Mini Poster

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