Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose current Terminator 2 seals his status as today’s screen Überstar, has spawned a legion of grunting imitators, but none so slavish as Jean-Claude Van Damme, the brutal, Bambi-eyed ”Muscles from Brussels.” Since Arnold’s rise from pumped-up Euro nobody to Master of Hollywood is largely due to the success of his movies on home video, Van Damme is taking the same trail. And it could work. Van Damme’s Kickboxer, Cyborg, and Bloodsport have been video monsters while ringing up increasingly strong theatrical returns. The real test may come this week, when his Double Impact (a kickboxing Corsican Brothers in which this Arnie-wannabe plays twins) hits theaters. His last theatrical film, Lionheart has just been released on video as well, and because it shows just how high Van Damme is aiming — and where he falls short — it’s a great place for the uninitiated to start.

Ironically, Van Damme is more at home on the video screen than such competing action behemoths as Steven Seagal, whose outsize attitude and 6’3” frame seem to bend the edges of the TV tube. Van Damme, by comparison, seems video-friendly: A wiry 5’8”, he’s more graceful and less smug than his screen rivals. While Lionheart won’t win Oscars for script or acting (i.e., it’s dumb), Van Damme’s whiplash fighting style is certainly something to see. He’s the Astaire of kickboxing flicks.

Lionheart revels in its own dodo absurdity. Jean-Claude plays Lyon, a French Foreign Legionnaire (five minutes in, and we’re already in hoot territory) who deserts his post in North Africa to come to his widowed sister- in-law’s aid in L.A. After crossing the Atlantic as a boiler-room stoker (a few discreet close-ups of sweaty pecs here), he finds sister-in-law and her adorable moppet daughter penniless. What would you do to help? Right: You’d enlist as a fighter in that illegal kickboxing circuit attended by many of America’s wealthy elite. You did know the jet set gathers in underground garages to cheer on battling beefcake, didn’t you?

It gets weirder. The circuit’s run by a sleek Ms. Big (Deborah Rennard), who takes one look at Jean-Claude and swallows her gum. He’s not having any, though, so she tries to sell him out to the Foreign Legion MPs who want to ship him back to North Africa and — aahhh, who cares? The fights are all that matter here, and they’re presented for your delectation as state-of-the-art whomp-fests: brutal ballets of gracefully inflicted pain.

There’s a hypocrisy here, unfortunately, that spoils a lot of Lionheart‘s campy fun. We’re meant to see the rooting crowd — and, by extension, ourselves — as decadent and immoral, yet the matches themselves are obviously the movie’s main course. Lionheart wants it both ways — to play to our yahoo side while moralistically shaking a finger — and two messages are one more than an essentially stupid fight flick can bear.

The irony is that the actual competitive sport of kickboxing is hardly decadent. The tournament videos that are available (see reviews here and here) show a martial art whose emphasis is on discipline and training. Van Damme’s movies, on the other hand, are crafted solely for entertainment. But if you’re going to make a career out of kicking people in the head, you may as well learn to take the ensuing heat. By never fessing up to its own bloodlust, Lionheart is, at bottom, chickenhearted. C+

  • Movie
  • 105 minutes