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One of Van Damme's VERY BEST-The Legionnaire Avenger
on May 12, 2003
Do not be misguided by the fact that this movie was shot back in 1989, and thus be led to assume that this is another one of the low budget, b-movies that Van Damme used to make in the 1980's.
AWOL/Lionheart, is arguably his best film ever.
The story begins in what is a typical modern Legion Etrangere camp somewhere in North Africa. Van Damme plays a ranker soldier, Leon, who is serving in one of the Legion's crack North African detachments. Here, we get the very rare glimpse of what is like to be a modern Legionnaire: Both the scenery and camp are very realistic, rigid discipline prevalent, with emphasis being put on the soldiers' perfect fitness through physical training and manual labour.
Suddenly, Leon receives a letter from his only brother's wife who lives in the USA, informing him that his brother was beaten to death by some villains, and that she needs someone both to avenge his death and take care of her and her little daughter.
Rigid almost inhuman discipline in the Legion is once again underlined, when Private Leon asks to see his Commanding Officer, an impressive blond Frenchman, every inch a soldier. After hearing the reasons why Pvt. Leon asks for a leave, his CO coolly denies on the grounds that he firstly needs him "down here", and secondly that Pvt. Leon's contract with the Legion excludes furloughs.
From here onwards, the movie ceases to be static, and becomes a fast paced action adventure, as we follow Van Damme's risky escape from the camp to some North African muslim seaport, where he seeks to obtain passage on one of the Merchant Ships there, to the USA. In the meantime, his French CO has reported him as AWOL, and he has ordered two of his best NCO's to locate and return the deserter back to his unit.
Van Damme evades his pursuers, and signs on a 1950's Steam Turbine General Freighter as a Wiper, in order to pay for his passage.
When he finally arrives in the USA, we see him wandering the streets of New York, dressed in Navy fatigues looking for a job. He finally makes his way under a bridge, where the odd black bookmaker is staging a no-holds barred street-fighting tournament of sorts. The bookmaker, seeing Van Damme's incredible physique, suggests that he should fight in the next match in return for a fee. Asking his name, Van Damme replies slowly in French, "LE-ON", whereupon, the bookmaker hears "Lion" and proclaims him the "Lion". Thus, a new street-fighter star is born.
Van Damme, keeps fighting for profit, and his successes attract the attention of a gorgeous Nordic-American female manager, who is organizing fights for the entertainment of the Jet-Set NYC citizens. She falls in love with him, and acting as his manager, arranges his participation in high-class private fighting matches for the rich. Van Damme wins fame and glory, but his mind is always with his dead brother, and his widow and daughter.
After doing a lot of digging, he finally manages to locate his brother widow and daugter, whereupon one of the most touching scenes of the movie take place, when Van Damme meets his brother's daughter and widow, amid hugs and celebration.
But, his pursuers from the Legion, follow close behind, looking for a chance to seize him. Finally, they manage to track him down, in some makeshift arena where Van Damme is about to meet the late World Wrestling Federation Champion Andre the Giant, in a match to the death, which would be the culmination of his career as U.S. fighter. As the match progresses, we see the two Legionnaire NCO's, formerly his bitter enemies, having changed into stalwart supporters of his, witnessing first-hand his bravery and fighting skill.
After the match is over, the French NCO's make themselves known, and take Van Damme into their custody, despite his brother's widow protests. Then follows the most touching scene in the film, with Van Damme hugging his brother's daughter, tears flowing in his eyes. The scene is so compelling, that even the tough French Legionnaires, after looking each other, cannot avoid to shed the odd tear.
After putting Van Damme in the car, the French NCO's drive only about half a mile down the road, when the car stops suddenly, and Van Damme is set free, in order to return to his dead brother's family.
A truly great movie, one of Van Damme's few movies, which I enjoyed seeing over and over again. The movie will be loved by, not only from those who admire the French Foreign Legion, but from martial arts fans as well, not to say anything of Van Damme's fans, who will absolutely love it. It is one of these rarest of the rare low budget movies that, having started with meager resources, by luck and hard work are turned into pearls.
The hero's devotion and love to his only brother, deeply touched me, and I think also struck a chord deep within the souls of all who saw it. I do not think that there is a single man, who would let his dead brother's wife and daughter suffer, no matter if one was half the planet away from the other. Sometimes, duty to the dead brother's family comes first from duty to country.
A truly outstanding movie:buy it.