Leon Gaultier (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is a French Foreign Legionnaire in Djibouti who has just received bad news from home. His sister-in-law Helene (Lisa Pelikan) has sent him a letter telling of his brother and how he was executed by a gang of thugs when a drugs deal went wrong; Leon is shocked but cannot find a way to persuade his superiors to give him leave so that he can go to Los Angeles and ensure that his brother's family are secure. Therefore there is only one thing to do, and that is make a run for it, which he manages to do with the authorities in pursuit...
Van Damme had already been established a new action star to be reckoned with by the time A.W.O.L., otherwise known as Lionheart, was released, even if most people were watching his movies on video, probably accompanied by beer and pizza. But it was material like this that enabled him to star in cinema blockbusters (and would-be blockbusters) for a while in the nineties, and here, as would be the case later on, he tried to show his sensitive side in the hope it would award him heartthrob status, something that he pretty much achieved. So here not only does our hero administer boots to the head, but he gets to be a stand-in father figure too.
Leon's brother's family are now in a state of dire financial need, but to alleviate their troubles he has to reach them first. It turns out that he, as in that old movie cliché, joined the Legion to forget, in this case forget the criminal past he inadvertently introduced his sibling to, therefore bringing about his untimely demise, so it's guilt that follows Leon around and provides his main impetus. After fooling a ship's captain that he is a sailor, he reaches San Francisco where he has nothing (not least a change of clothes after swimming about a mile to shore); nothing but his fists, that is and soon he has found a bare knuckle boxing match to get him some cash as he wins (quelle surprise).
This brings him to the attention of Joshua (Harrison Page, best known for being Captain Trunk in action spoof Sledge Hammer! on television), who becomes Leon's manager even though he was not asked. Page seems to be channeling Dustin Hoffman's performance from Midnight Cowboy, complete with limp, but he does liven up what could have been tediously sincere, as Van Damme is strictly in sombre mode throughout. Soon Leon's skills have made him a fighter rubbing shoulders with the elite, who are all portrayed as a corrupt and unsavoury lot in contrast to Leon's striving to better his situation and his relatives' in a far more noble frame of mind. He never forgets that he is working for the rich, and not the other way around.
It's clear the filmmakers did not wish to stray too far from their winning formula, however, and there are combat sequences at regular intervals, excused by the fact that its main character is an unofficial professional fighter now. So we get to see Van Damme win against a Scotsman in an underground car park, or don a swimsuit to beat up some bloke in a swimming pool, but this, as in a computer game, is merely the first course, the main meal being the contest between Leon and Attila (Abdel Qissi), a mountain of a man who is accompanied by a Bond villain-style white cat. Peppered between these bits are supposedly tear-jerking scenes with Van Damme and his niece (Ashley Johnson), as Leon tries to persuade Helene to accept the money he is trying to give her (she's in the huff with him for leading his brother astray). Subtlety has no place here, but for what it was A.W.O.L. was earnest in its drama, even if you'll probably enjoy the fights more. Music by John Scott.