Jean-Claude Van Damme, the muscles from Brussels, began studying martial arts when he was 11. If only he had started English lessons at the same time! Then his films would be more bearable than laughable.
Witness "Lionheart," Van Damme's eighth effort but really little more than a change of costume and locations for an overly familiar plot. This go-round, Van Damme is Lyon Gaultier, a surly soldier in the French Foreign Legion who punches his way out of a desert post after his drug-dealing brother is set on fire in Los Angeles. After stowing away on a freighter, Lyon shows up in New York, where he immediately stumbles onto an underground (actually under-ramp) street-fighting match. Van Damme sees the competition as a way to raise money to complete his journey and promptly destroys a burly black challenger (movies being the last arena where white fighters routinely dispatch black ones).
In New York, Lyon (soon dubbed Lionheart) teams up with the street-smart hustler Joshua (Harrison Page) and the rich, amoral promoter Cynthia (Deborah Rennard), apparently forgetting about his brother while gathering purses in brutal, no-rules battles. Eventually he ends up in Los Angeles, fighting for the pleasure of the rich and famous in increasingly silly secret locations (a racquetball court, a half-filled swimming pool, an underground garage where bettors circle the fighters with their expensive cars, which they never bother getting out of). Eventually, Lionheart will fight the gonzo Attila (Abdel Qissi).
If you've seen one kick-boxing movie you've seen them all, including this one, and it hardly matters that the subplot is familiar as well. Seems the brother left behind a widow (Lisa Pelikan) and a little orphan not-named-Annie-but-looking-just-like-her (Ashley Johnson). The widow resents Lyon, so he and Joshua must secretly funnel his earnings her way, which is how the two manhunters from the French Foreign Legion find him and ... well, you make the call.
Hot on the heel of "Death Warrant," "Lionheart" continues the reshaping of Van Damme as a sensitive, dare we say mopey, fighter with a heart of gold, sort of a bleeding Lionheart. Sure, he can still deliver a punch, and a kick to boot, and all of it is lovingly filmed from a half dozen angles and then spliced together for dizzying effect. Unfortunately, Van Damme is not as smooth with his lines, which he helped write but which still land with less pow than thud. Call it Van Dammage.
As Lionheart heads for his final confrontation, the film's soundtrack blasts out a "Rocky"-like song called "No Mercy." Unless you're a Van Damme or martial arts fanatic, you're more likely to be thinking: No, merci.
Lionheart, at area theaters, is rated R and contains un peu de violence as well as a shot of
Van Damme's bare derriere.