PLaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh… No wait. It’s BAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…three minutes later…aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhAAAAAAAAaahhhhhhh. That’s kinda one of Van Damme’s earliest traits before getting his arse out became the main one. You couldn’t get through Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Cyborg or AWOL without him beating people up with long slow-mo shots of his bug-eyed expression and an elongated punch cry. Not to mention an opponent’s face and body flopping about in slo-mo too. Love it.
AWOL (Known in the US as Lionheart) tells the story of a Legionnaire named Lyon (Not to be confused by his later film, Legionnaire) who goes, er, AWOL when he discovers his brother has been burned alive in a drug deal gone sour. Of course he asks permission first from his unsympathetic peers; but has to do a runner back to the states only to discover his brother has died and has left a widow and child behind; which Lyon the Lionheart decides he must try to help.
But before he can do any of that he is initially shunned and sent to the streets where he rather quickly discovers that he can just join in street fights and win cash! And this is where the action really starts. He begins under a freeway bridge having a one on one to an enthusiastic local crowd and wins pretty much without taking a hit from one of the funniest moving opponents I have seen on film (with a rather nervous shoulder rolling action going on).
From here he obtains a self imposed manager in the form of, man of the street, Joshua and the two make it into the underground world of bloodsport street fighting (Geddit! I can make jokes too!). He makes his way up the ranks fighting in underground car parks with cheating Scotsmen; empty swimming pools with long haired Anthony Kiedis lookalikes; and slowly towards that big fat pay day with a fight with the humungous Atilla (someone much more of Andre the Giant’s stature).
I gotta say each fight still to this day has some decent choreography. Van Damme isn’t afraid to take a punch and show that he can bleed (Unlike some people, Hey Seagal?). AWOL was a further showcase of Van Damme having some different finishing moves as well. It is almost like watching a game you are not controlling some times.
Take a look at some of the fights here. His first one under the bridge is borderline comical as he knocks the guys face around in slow-motion, with the other dude not even making contact on him once. His first fight in the underground car-park is even more hilarious as he ducks a high side-kick and merely punches the guy in the goolies.
Of course afterwards it starts to get a little more serious. But only too often when Van-Damme hits his stride does the editing start to get carried away. He finishes off the swimming pool pepper with an elbow shot, which the film repeats about five times from different angles before the guy finally goings down.
The film has heart though as time is spent literally spelling out that he does this to support his family, and is in essence a no-monkey business innocent when it comes to loyalty and providing for a family. A lesson well learnt by his friend Joshua in the final fight when he decides to place the “wrong bet.”
AWOL is still just before he really hit if off big with the mainstream, but probably at the height of his video rental fandom before we went totally Hollywood (Double Impact bridged that gap). This is also the third of what I see as the Van Damme Fighting trilogy. Bloodsport, Kickboxer and this made the three (Sorry I don’t count No retreat No Surrender – as he was the bad guy! and barely in it – just like his tiny part in Black Eagle). All three of them have fight competitions that are barely legal at best, there is also some sort of family pride driving the main character – and yes there is also a smart mouthed sidekick waiting in the wings. Kickboxer is probably the only one that doesn’t also have the military trying to drag his ass back to the job like the other two.
Also keep a peek out for Brian Thomson who is perhaps best known for playing the main bad guy in Stallone’s Cobra as well as Michel Qissi as one of two men chasing after Van Damme (Eagle eyes will have spotted him having his leg broken in Bloodsport, and playing Kickboxer 1 & 2 villain Tong Po).
AWOL perhaps feels a bit at times like recording several generations down from the original, but for these initial films that put Van Damme in the limelight there is now denying the smarts on screen when it came to exposing and making the most of an underused art-form on screen at the time.