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 min.
CountryUnited States
Box office$24,078,196

Lionheart (also known as Wrong Bet, A.W.O.L.: Absent Without Leave, Leon and Full Contact) is a 1990 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.

The film stars Van Damme as paratrooper legionnaire; Leon Gaultier. 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.


Lyon Gaultier is a paratrooper 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 wrong and suffers third-degree burns, dying shortly afterward. Lyon deserts his legion when he finds out they have been withholding letters from his brother's wife and ultimately refuse to let him see his dying brother. He steals a jeep and escapes through the desert, finding work on a tramp steamer headed for the U.S. Meanwhile, the Legion Commandant travels to Paris, arriving at the government Consulate, where he is told that Lyon's desertion is ranked at low importance with the LAPD, so the Commandant suggests sending two of his own men to bring Gaultier back, which is approved.

Lyon arrives pennyless in New York City and is attracted to an illegal street fighting match that is being run by a New Yorker called Joshua, a man who runs fights for money. Gaultier steps forward to take part in the next fight and destroys his opponent, leaving Joshua looking astounded at what he just saw. 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 a no-holds-barred bare-knuckle fights to finance the trip.

Once in L.A. Lyon goes to the hospital where his brother was taken. He learns that he cannot avenge his brother's murder, as he failed to identify his killers before dying. Grief-stricken, Lyon asks the help of Joshua who tracks down his brother's widow's address. However 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. She threatens to call the cops and Lyon has no choice but to leave.

To provide finance to help his sister-in-law and daughter Nicole, Joshua introduces Lyon in the L.A. fighting circuit as the titular "Lionheart," derived from "Lyon." Lyon continues fighting and winning, and Joshua uses the prize money to give to Lyon's sister-in-law in the form of checks, with Joshua claiming to be from a life insurance policy her husband allegedly subscribed to long ago.

Meanwhile, the two Legionnaires sent from Paris catch up with Lyon in Los Angeles. Lyon fights them off, but suffers a broken rib. Cynthia decides to take advantage of this and Lyon's string of victories by stacking the odds in favor of a massive, brutal fighter named "Attila the Killer", who has so far been unbeatable. Cynthia stacks the odds by smuggling a video of Attila and making it look as if he is fighting poorly in one of his earlier bouts, which as expected fails to impress the odds-makers. Cynthia later reveals Attila's true prowess to the Legionnaires, and she promises to deliver Lyon to them after he has been thoroughly humiliated and beaten. The Legionnaires agree to this, provided they can be in the audience watching.

Lyon's fight with Attila is hampered by his broken rib. Attila's trademark (deliberately withheld from Lyon) is to let his opponent tire themselves out before viciously breaking them, often killing them in the process. When it appears "Attila" has won, Joshua begs Lyon to give up, revealing that they were both used by Cynthia. Joshua, for the best of reasons (Lionheart's family), placed all of his own money on Attila as a form of "insurance," as all the odds are against Lyon winning. Lyon, angered by this news, bounces back and summons up all his remaining strength to defeat Attila, subduing but not killing him. While bookies sideline Cynthia demanding she pay up, the Legionnaires capture Lyon. They escort him back to the apartment, where they give him some time to say his goodbyes before being returned to Africa, where he will be court-martialed for desertion. Lyon tells his niece that he must go but to try to look for times when life can be good, which is emotional as she does not understand. However, just down the road, moved by the family's heartbreak, the Legionnaires decide to let Lyon go. They believe he has shown the Legion's values of honor, determination and service to others, both during the fight and helping out the family, and wish him luck in his new life in America. Ultimately, Lyon is shown running back to a pleased Joshua and joyous family.



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.[1] 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.[2]

In the film, Van Damme shows his backside in one sceen. 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.[2]


The critical reception for the film was negative.[3][4][5][6] On the film aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, it holds an approval rating of 27% based on 15 reviews.[4] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.[7]

Box office[edit]

Lionheart performed well at the box office, debuting in 3rd position in the US with sales of about $7 million.[8] The film dropped to 7th in its second week,[9] and to 9th in its third.[10] The film earned $24,078,196 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.[2]


  1. ^ Q & A with Sheldon Lettich By Marco A. S. Freitas (Guest Post)
  2. ^ a b c Evan Sathoff, "Badass Interview: Talking Jean-Claude Van Damme With LIONHEART Director, Sheldon Lettich", 5 Feb 2015 accessed 20 June 2015
  3. ^ Wilmington, Michael (1991-01-11). "Karate-Themed 'Lionheart' Is a Swift Kick in the Teeth". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-08-23.
  4. ^ a b "Lionheart". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
  5. ^ "Lionheart". Entertainment Weekly. 1991-01-18. Retrieved 2010-12-01.
  6. ^ "Lionheart". Washington Post. 1991-01-14. Retrieved 2010-12-01.
  7. ^ "CinemaScore".
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ "'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.
  10. ^ "'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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