Lionheart (1990 film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed bySheldon Lettich
Produced byEric Karson
Ash R. Shah
Written byS. N. Warren
Jean-Claude van Damme
Sheldon Lettich
Music byJohn Scott
CinematographyRobert C. New
Edited byMark Conte
Wrong Bet Productions
Imperial Entertainment
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • January 11, 1991 (1991-01-11)
Running time
105 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$6 million[1]
Box office$24.3 million[1]

Lionheart (also known as AWOL and Wrong Bet) is a 1991 action film directed by Sheldon Lettich, starring Jean-Claude van Damme and co-starring Brian Thompson, along with Harrison Page, Deborah Rennard, Lisa Pelikan, and Ashley Johnson. Van Damme plays a paratrooper legionnaire. When his brother is seriously injured, he returns to Los Angeles to enter the underground fighting circuit to raise money for his brother's family.

The film's cast and crew included two people who had appeared in an earlier Van Damme film: Michel Qissi (a good friend of his) and Sheldon Lettich. This was the second time Qissi played a villain in a Van Damme film, the first being notably as Tong Po in Kickboxer (1989). Lettich helped write one of Van Damme's breakthrough films, Bloodsport, along with another Van Damme film, Double Impact. The film grossed $24.3 million on a $6 million budget.


Lyon Gaultier is in the French Foreign Legion, stationed in Djibouti, North Africa. His brother, who is married to an American woman in Los Angeles, is burned alive during a drug deal gone bad and eventually dies. Lyon deserts his legion when he finds out they have been withholding letters from his brother's wife Helen, which prevented him from seeing his dying brother. He steals a jeep and escapes through the desert, finding work on a tramp steamer headed for the U.S. The Legion Commandant travels to Paris and finds that Lyon's desertion is ranked at low importance with the LAPD, so the Commandant sends two of his own men to bring Gaultier back.

Lyon arrives penniless in New York City and is attracted to an illegal street fight being run by a New Yorker called Joshua. Gaultier steps forward to take part in a fight and destroys his opponent, leaving Joshua astounded. Joshua calls Lyon "Lionheart," based on his unusual name. Joshua takes Lyon to meet a person called Cynthia, also known as 'The Lady,' who organizes underground fights for the rich elite and she decides to sponsor him. Figuring that this would be the best way to earn the money he needs to get to L.A., Lyon fights in no-holds-barred bare-knuckle fights to finance the trip.

Once in L.A., Lyon goes to the hospital where his brother was. He is told by the doctor that the culprits of his murder were caught. Grief-stricken, Lyon and Joshua track down Helen's address. She refuses to accept any financial aid from him, even though she obviously needs it, because she is angry with Lyon for "deserting" his brother years ago and blames him for his involvement in drugs. She threatens to call the cops; Lyon flees.

To help Helen and his niece Nicole, Lyon agrees to continue fighting in the L.A. fighting circuit, which is also run by Cynthia. Since Helen refused to interact with him, Joshua poses as an insurance agent and gives her the winnings in the form of checks, which they claim are from a life insurance policy her husband had. Cynthia is angered that Lyon isn't keeping the money and becomes suspicious of his motives.

Two Legionnaires sent from Paris catch up with Lyon in Los Angeles. Lyon fights them off, but suffers a broken rib. He is saved from the fight when Cynthia's assistant (who has been tracking him) arrives and takes him away. Cynthia meets with the Legionnaires and shows them a tape of a fighter named "Attila," and says that she has booked Lyon a fight with him. Attila is undefeated and supposedly kills his opponents; Cynthia agrees to hand Lyon over to the Legionnaires after the fight. In order to skew the odds, Cynthia arranges a meeting with potential betters where she shows an altered tape of Attila which makes him look like a poor fighter.

Just prior to the fight, Joshua realizes Lyon is hurt. He encourages him not to fight and alludes to a time when he was a fighter and Cynthia set him up similarly, but Lyon ignores him and is determined to win the money to take Helen and Nicole away. As the fight proceeds, Lyon is obviously hurt by his rib. When it appears Attila has won, Joshua begs Lyon to give up and tells him he bet on Attila because he feared Lyon would die. Lyon, angered by this news, summons his remaining strength to defeat Attila, but does not kill him. Cynthia is ruined and is apprehended by the bookies; Lyon is taken into custody by the Legionnaires. They take him back to the apartment to say goodbye to his family before returning to Africa, where he will be court-martialed for desertion. Once they drive away, though, they stop and tell Lyon to get out, wishing him luck. He runs back to his family and Joshua, who embrace him.



Director Sheldon Lettich had co-written Bloodsport, the film that turned Van Damme into a star. They had become friends and Van Damme was impressed with a short film Lettich made, Firebase, and agreed for Lettich to direct.[2] The director later recalled

Lionheart was a defining film for Van Damme because I did not shy away from giving him considerable amounts of dialogue and character development throughout the film. I trusted him to pull this off, whereas before nobody else believed he could do much more than just deliver some fancy kicks and simple one-liners. Lionheart was the first movie to demonstrate that Van Damme was more than just a flash-in-the-pan "Karate Guy" who would never rise above simplistic low-budget karate movies.[3]

In the film, Van Damme shows his backside in one scene. While we were filming the scene in Lionheart where he takes a shower in Cynthia's apartment, he asked me if he might casually "drop his towel" and show off his butt for a brief moment. My reply was "Sure, if you're willing, why not? We can always use a different take later if we decide it's not a good idea." So we did one take where he casually lets the towel drop away, and then we later decided to go ahead and put that shot in the movie. Well, that became a very memorable moment for the ladies in the audience, and for the gay guys as well. Showing off his butt (clothed or unclothed) almost became a signature trademark of his after that.[3]


The critical reception for the film was negative.[4][5][6][7] On the film aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, it holds an approval rating of 27% based on 15 reviews.[5] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.[8]

Box office[edit]

Lionheart performed well at the box office, debuting in 3rd position in the US with sales of about $7 million.[9] The film dropped to 7th in its second week,[10] and to 9th in its third.[11] The film earned $24.3 million worldwide on a budget of $6 million.

Director Sheldon Lettich says the film became very popular among his fans:

People love the characters. They're particularly fond of Lyon's motor-mouthed, self-appointed "manager," Joshua. Van Damme's female fans seem especially enamored of this film because it was the first (and possibly the best) to showcase JCVD's softer, more compassionate side. In Lionheart he's not fighting for revenge or to "honor his Sensei," or any of the usual motivations that are typical for these sorts of movies; he's fighting for his family. He's getting himself bruised and bloodied in these brutal street fights so that his little niece can get a new bicycle.[3]


  1. ^ a b "Lionheart". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved December 26, 2018.
  2. ^ Q & A with Sheldon Lettich By Marco A. S. Freitas (Guest Post)
  3. ^ a b c Evan Sathoff, "Badass interview: Talking Jean-Claude van Damme with LIONHEART director, Sheldon Lettich", 5 Feb 2015 accessed 20 June 2015
  4. ^ Wilmington, Michael (1991-01-11). "Karate-Themed 'Lionheart' Is a Swift Kick in the Teeth". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-08-23.
  5. ^ a b "Lionheart". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
  6. ^ "Lionheart". Entertainment Weekly. 1991-01-18. Retrieved 2010-12-01.
  7. ^ "Lionheart". Washington Post. 1991-01-14. Retrieved 2010-12-01.
  8. ^ "CinemaScore".
  9. ^ Broeske, Pat H. (1991-01-14). "Home Alone in 9th Week as No. 1 Film : Movies: 'Godfather Part III' takes dramatic slide from second to sixth place in its third week out. 'Awakenings' is in second". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-01-01.
  10. ^ "'Home Alone' Fends Off Yet Another 'Intruder' : Box Office: Vietnam War film opens to mediocre business as comedy remains on top for 10th week. After four weeks of release, 'Godfather Part III' drops to 12th". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2012-06-04.
  11. ^ "'Alone' Stays at Home Atop Box Office Charts : Movies: The comedy has won 11 consecutive weekends. Its ticket sales have topped $200 million". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2012-06-04.

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