A.W.O.L.: Absent Without Leave (1990) Directed by Sheldon Lettich. With Jean-Claude Van Damme, Harrison Page, Deborah Rennard, Brian Thompson and Lisa Pelikan.
The career of Jean-Claude Van Damme is littered with no-brain action films, dedicated foremost to showcasing his eye-catching fighting style, treating plot and character development as incidental. AWOL, or Lionheart, as it is known across certain borders, is perhaps an example of a Van Damme film that tries to be more than just a knuckle-headed beat ’em up.
A straight-to-video release in 1990 and directed by Sheldon Lettich – a director/star relationship that would continue for a decade – AWOL is an attempt to fuse together the theatrics of bare knuckle, hand-to-hand combat with an affecting central narrative. Despite some vexatiously jarring edits, and an occasionally dated-looking aesthetic, the film succeeds at standing out as an example of an above average b-movie fight film.
Van Damme plays Lyon, a deserter from the French Foreign Legion, who upon learning of a serious family incident, travels from the Horn of Africa to America. Aiming for Los Angeles, but arriving unexpectedly in New York and without a penny to his name, Lyon gets drawn into an underground fight club to earn cash.
It’s easy to sneer at Van Damme, but in fairness, his performance in AWOL does demonstrate a certain amount of charm, outside of the blatant appeal of his martial arts ability. Firstly, he’s not trying too hard to make himself understood to an American audience. It’s accepted that this guy is a foreigner, and his broken English only contributes to his charm. Because he isn’t having to force his English, he’s much more natural and it allows mistakes, but those same mistakes lend authenticity.
Of course, it helps that the script is a good one, and that the star is surrounded by good performances from actors giving their best. As Lyon’s sidekick, of sorts, Joshua (Harrison Page) is a lively presence, and as the film develops, the relationship between the pair blossoms into something genuinely touching.
In a sense, it’s frustrating that more action movie directors don’t realise that a little investment in human characters and relationships informs and adds weight to the ensuing action. Caring what happens to characters is crucial to engaging the audience, and it also affords a film longevity outside of the time you spend in its company.
It’s refreshing to watch a Van Damme film and be able to praise the performances of the supporting actors. It’s a sure sign that there’s more going on than just flying head kicks. Of course, it’s still a long way from perfection, and the amount of punishment the human body can take is exaggerated to the usual extent. In fairness, though, for the love of the genre, you have to put these niggles aside and just enjoy the spectacle. AWOL might not be considered a classic, but it’s not hard to see why you might love it. 3/5