According to its Wikipedia page, AWOL (also known as Lionheart in the US) is “arguably one of the essential Van Damme films”. Whilst that may well be true, it’s fair to say that that’s more of a statement on the questionable quality of most of his movies, rather than a ringing endorsement of this one. Although it’s got its charms, AWOL is, sadly, by no means a classic.
Plot wise, it’s fairly standard stuff. When his brother is burnt alive by a particularly nasty group of drug dealers, Van Damme deserts from the French Foreign Legion and makes his way to America in order to avenge him. Upon arriving in the States, he finds out no one knows who killed his brother so he forgets all about that and instead gets involved with underground fighting clubs in order to support his brother’s family. And, err, that’s about it really. A couple of legionnaires show up to try and arrest him, and there’s a succession of bizarre opponents for him to fight (Man in a kilt! Man in lycra who flicks his hair like he’s in a shampoo ad! Man with massive sideburns and a Bond villain style cat!). There’s also a tick-list of early ‘90s B-movie clichés, including a ropey soundtrack, terrible outfits, Brian Thompson, a plot that even Stallone would have second thoughts about, the obligatory scene when Van Damme gets his arse out, and, bizarrely, a clothes shopping scene that seems to be included purely on the grounds that Pretty Woman had one the previous year.
It would be churlish to dismiss AWOL for any of these reasons, however. No one’s ever watched a Van Damme movie for the plot. You watch it for the fight scenes. And this is AWOL’s one redeeming feature (okay, that and Van Damme trying to act drunk). The fights, although hardly ground-breaking, are well staged, varied, and, for the most part, a good demonstration of Van Damme’s skills (not sure about the fight he wins just by punching his opponent in the balls five seconds in, though). However, in comparison to modern martial arts movies such as The Raid, their slow speed and general tameness seems rather quaint.
One of Van Damme’s essential films it may be (if such a thing exists), but unfortunately AWOL hasn’t aged well. It’s cheesy, clichéd as hell, but just about gets by on charm and nostalgia value.
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INFO: AWOL / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: SHELDON LETTICH / SCREENPLAY: SHELDON LETTICH & JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME / STARRING: JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME, HARRISON PAGE, DEBORAH RENNARD, LISA PELIKAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW