If there's one thing that Jean-Claude Van Damme loves more than kicking people in the face it's kicking people in the face for the sake of helping out others. He has played a lot of characters through the years who were hunting down bad guys, but he's also often played someone who ends up fighting to help a loved one/family member. A.W.O.L. (as I will be calling it, it's all I remember from the VHS box years ago) falls into the latter category, and it succeeds because it's so unabashedly sweet and emotionally manipulative. That, and the fact that it features plenty of enjoyable fight scenes.
JCVD plays Lyon, a soldier who goes AWOL when he hears about the death of his brother, leaving one woman a widow and one little girl without a father. His brother's widow doesn't really want his help, at least not initially, which is a bit of a pain in the ass, because Lyon is being pursued by military folk who want to drag him back, and he's also quickly made a name, and some money, for himself in an underground fight club scene. His body is being put through the wringer, but it will all be worth it if he can stick around long enough to earn one big final payout.
Apparently based on an earlier screenplay by S. N. Warren (his only film credit, from what I could see), this has been crafted into a perfect star vehicle by the lead and director Sheldon Lettich. It's obvious that both men are savvy about how to appeal to a wide demographic here. The fights feel slicker, with more moments in which the lack of actual contact seems obvious, than in Van Damme's earlier movies, the story allows for moments when people can have actual feelings, and the leading man shows his butt.
Acting is as you'd expect, certainly from Van Damme, who once again offsets his limitations by playing someone almost naively good-natured. Harrison Page is a good "sidekick", playing a man who helps out Lyon while also seeing the chance to make some decent money, Deborah Rennard is enjoyably cool and powerful as Cynthia, the woman in charge of the fights, and Brian Thompson is always a welcome presence, even if he's sorely wasted in his role (seriously, you get Brian Thompson in an action movie and don't really throw him into the actual action?).
My memory may be hazy here, I was a teenager and have never spent my days trying to "take the temperature" of the state of the movie business, but this movie felt like the final push that turned Van Damme into an action star for both male and female viewers. It has a lot of elements that were already in place - his martial arts skills, his looks, his good guy roles - but it packaged everything in a more appealing way, with a dash of everything to make it a great choice for a date night movie.
And, you know what, it's STILL a great choice.
There's a blu available here.
Americans can get a special edition here.