Now, I don’t want to repeat things long corroded by the acids of banality and predictability, things teleported from an area once brimming with adequate measures of respectable discussion to a desolate and noxious area fouled by the miasma of iteration.
I’ll have it known I don’t desire a stroll in the echoes of reverberating tedium. I’d rather not tread those pathways, for they are murky with the grimacing pates of a thousand bores, some of them mid-howl with the cries we’ve heard many times before, cries that are easily ticked off the expectation chart.
It would revolt me to the basest emotions – those we share with a bunch of ancestral savages and the odd advertising executive – and would cause oodles of irreparable damage to the time-share of common sense I like to keep ‘round me every now and again. But I must, for context demands it, and context is a wily old beast not to be messed with.
Let it be said: epochs are rarely defined as rigidly and with as much verve as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s dance in Kickboxer. In but a Polaroid of time, the Belgian was able to establish meaning for millions; those young and those old, those rich and those poor, those who have seen Rutger Hauer’s seminal Blind Fury, and those dehydrated of such sightless ninja wonder.
In a swagger of hips and the quake of derriere aerobics, he injected a sublime syringe-full of esprit de corps into a mankind begging for such amenities. Children from the northernmost province of Scotland to the litters of infants slightly south of that region marveled at this statement. They asked questions of themselves, and threw out queries to each other, often along the lines of: “How can I get my pelvic bones to swish in such a hypnotic manner?”
It’s a benchmark. No, it is the bench! And we all sit upon it everyday. The bench of Van Damme is omnipresent – much like the stool of Treat Williams; only the former is all-encompassing, whereas the latter smells like Megadeth circa Risk.
This is relevant because, after Kickboxer orated its excellence to the cinematic community, after its electromagnetic pulse of influence abated, Van Damme made a film by the name of AWOL (also called Lionheart in some quadrants of the planet).
Now this was at a time when he was surfing a breaking wave of kudos, the crest of which rose much higher than metaphor allows. But his ever-cautious intellect made sure he had scuba gear in hand, on the off chance his next move took him deep under the oceanic surface, to a place where mermaids touch intimate sections of Tom Hanks’ coitus utensil. That aqualung never once proved pragmatic, as AWOL kept afloat via an unusual coalescence of breaststroke and backstroke.
What do we know about this film? Excavating the contents by way of assumed general knowledge, we can poke a snide proboscis at an abbreviation detonated with clarity. AWOL is, of course, an old militant term meaning ‘absent without leave’, or ‘gone and fucked off without telling us’ in some places – certain locales where the graffiti covers even the senior citizens. This absenteeism is the ailment to attack the very motivations pushing our venturesome hero off in a multitude of directions.
The film has Van Damme sunning himself in the desert as a French legion peon; busying himself with philosophising about what extravagant text can be propelled at what is, in essence, a rather dull substance; about how he can masturbate his lexicon, describing in excruciating specifics, the overt states of all that sand – minimalist in content but all too epic in form.
After the wire shoots him a blitzkrieg of news that his brother has been scalded by a dirty gang of fire elements, Van Damme implores his obnoxious superior to give him a bit of the old leave. The hurdles stomp all over his wishes, and he is forced to violently make an exit from the camp, coercing human obstacles with his array of kicks and punches. This leads him to walk around in the desert for a while, although these scenes are lacking any of the beauty of Antonioni’s The Passenger, or any of the mullet of Steel Dawn.
Once over in the unified states, he begins to partake in underground fights in order to accumulate some monies – monies that’ll dispatch him to Los Angeles and his sibling’s self and family. Alas, when he gets there, his bro has kicked over a stack of buckets, leaving a wife and daughter all oppressed under the low ceiling of usury. Van Damme then retakes the stick of illegal brawling in order to earn cash for his in-laws, all the while being chased by a duo of his legionnaire counterparts.
The downtrodden Van Damme of later years nudges through the haze here, his dejected frame host to an infestation of melancholy. Of course, it’s best remembered that this is the second film in a row where something abhorrent happens to his brother. First, there was that vicious beating of Eric Sloane in Kickboxer, then the nth degree burns of Francois in this here. An allowance can be made here, an allocation of leeway for a man who has gifted us so much upbeat hilarity in the past.
Despite this plethora of sad countenances and miserable monosyllabics, I was almost sure he was going to break into a boogie at any moment. I thought I perceived vibrations gestating near his pubis; atom bombs of rhythm were set on DEFCON 1 for at least eighty of those hundred-odd minutes of action.
I watched, tenters hooking the glue on the seat-edges of my chair, as our protagonist meets with some sordid clandestine-fisticuff entrepreneurs. But not once did his swinging instincts sweat from his subconscious. Perhaps he was distracted by the rectangular facial structure of his interlocutors, one of whom is played by Brian Thompson, best known for his ballets as the alien bounty hunter in The X-Files, a role suited to perfection for such an obtuse pout. But, no dancing.
In the final confrontation, Van Damme squares up to Attila, a titanic Moroccan whose Easter bunny is JC himself, and chocolate eggs the various Van ribs, especially the one wallowing in a schism of brokenness. Alas, this Attila is of no relation to The Huns (or obviously, as I had pains to explain to an acquaintance once, the ruminations of the Second Reich). Nor any connection to Attila Csihar, erstwhile screamer for Norwegian black metallers Mayhem.
It’s a shame, because I wanted to see some mid-fight breakdown into ‘Pagan Fears,’ with Van Damme bludgeoning blast-beats on a valet’s spine.
AWOL does continue with the idiom-shattering wordplay and creative lingual flair Van Damme’s been galvanising since his arrival on-screen in the mid-eighties. Here we get majestic parlance such as, “He was not enough strong to be in jail.” It’s this sort of dictional faculty that renders most prose as extinct as John Carpenter’s talent.
With the musical cavortings locked away, we are left to admire a poignant tear or two as Van Damme demonstrates that real men do cry. Or real lions, in his case, as his forename of Lyon is corrupted into something resembling the jungle king.
Eventually, it is increasingly perverted, and following a messy caesarean, it arrives as Lionheart – a suitably nauseous misnomer, and were it not for Jean-Claude Van Damme giving substance to that abstract insult, we’d waste not an iota of minutes criticising it indefinitely.
Other than that, Van Damme does what he does best: spin-kick the very years of acting school out of the gullets of his co-stars and opponent combatants, while acting black hole to the dark matter of our attention spans. AWOL is snuggled somewhere above such atrocity exhibitions as Cyborg, but, unfortunately, below such raison d’etre as Kickboxer and Death Warrant on the hierarchy de Van Damme filmography; but nevertheless may its flower blossom for many aeons.