The hero of AWOL-72, the new movie from director Christian Sesma, is Luke Goss’s Conrad Miller. He’s an AWOL marine in possession of government secrets and, as such, he’s a wanted man. He must be stopped. He must be caught. He must be detained—altogether now—at all costs. So, who better to stop this butch, marine, Hollywood version of Edward Snowden than Russian special ops—duh. Oh, and the LAPD—obviously. Oh, and a treacherous, highly trained, ruthless assassin—of course.
However, I must confess, the idea of Luke Goss being the “hero” isn’t strictly true. No; the real hero of this movie—the individual who displayed the most bravery, exercised the most stoicism, demonstrated the most endurance, all while still managing to survive time and again despite almost insurmountable odds—was me. Reason? Because I managed to sit through the whole damn thing.
AWOL is awful: the plot is ridiculous, the dialogue is atrocious, the script is laughable, the acting is terrible, and the characters are sillier than a Republican presidential rally. These aspects might actually entice some folk, however. After all, sometimes a super dumb action movie can, in an ironic fashion, be a super fun action movie. Sadly this is nowhere near the case—not by a long shot. There is also absolutely zero wit or humour in this film—What. So. Ever. Not even a self-knowing sense of its own absurdity. It never once winks at the camera to assure you that it’s even vaguely aware of how extreme the levels of ridiculousness on-screen are. Instead it persistently (and embarrassingly) winks arrogantly at itself in the mirror, awkwardly posturing and flexing its biceps to give them a big kiss.
AWOL-72 is a film much too preoccupied with its look. It’s too concerned with what it wants to be rather than what it actually is. And what it wants to be is a film like Enemy of the State. Instead it just ends up as enemy of the brain.
Sesma is a director who loves to move his camera; but not in a sophisticated, thoughtful Max Ophus/Paul Thomas Anderson way—nah. He loves to shake it, and shake it, and then shake it some more. No rhyme, no reason. Perhaps the movie’s low-budget meant tripods had to be ditched for financial reasons. Who knows? But in Sesma’s head (I’ll guarantee you) this clumsy approach looks cool and edgy, giving the picture an erratic, faux-documentary quality. Quel auteur! It’s the technique Paul Greengrass popularised with the Bourne franchise and has become the default model of American action movies ever since. Even big studio behemoths like Marvel have adopted it (unfortunately). Except without Greengrass’s expertise, it never looks like Bourne. It just looks bad. And it’s so often terribly applied and poorly directed. It’s Bourne under a bad sign, where that sign is directing all these movies the wrong way. There will come a day when we’ll look back on this period and curse the day movies were Bourne—or at least tried to be.
The dire nature of AWOL-72 is unfortunate because films like John Wick and Fury Road are evidence that modern action movies can be truly thrilling and genuinely exciting. Films like The Raid show that Asian ones can, perhaps, be even more so. Films like AWOL-72, however, ignore those types of movies (you know, the interesting, creative ones). They instead see the format, the technique and the stereotypical premise of dull, Hollywood action movies and nab it. They don’t care about story or characters. It’s all about the surface. But the result is often something that’s worse than bad—it’s boring. For instead of approaching the subject with originality, they approach it with the mind-set of a forger (and a horribly incompetent one at that): they just want to make a knock off.
The low-budget aspect of AWOL is, from a filmmaking perspective, an awkward starting point. But it’s only inconvenient if you set out wanting to make a big-budget action movie—which is exactly what Sesma wanted to do. Low-budget movies trying desperately to look like big-budget movies rarely work. This is because they are constrained by preconceived standards of what the filmmakers think a “big-budget” movie of this sort ought to look like. As a result, they often end up with a gawky, hackneyed carbon copy of something that already exists (and probably done to greater effect). And it’s because of this that AWOL-72 is—by definition—entirely, and monotonously, unoriginal.
A low-budget starting point should be a terrific environment for the growth of creativity, not the stifling of it. A big-budget doesn’t often force a filmmaker to have to think outside the box. As long as you have the cash, anything you want is pretty much yours; provided the flood of producers are on board, of course. But with a smaller budget, filmmakers are constantly faced with obstacles that, in order for the film to work, require ingenuity, sleight of hand, and initiative to get around. And they have little to no studio execs breathing down their neck, tapping their feet and pointing at the clock.
Sadly, AWOL-72 doesn’t try anything even slightly original. It’s a terrible, tacky little action movie that’s designed purely (and cynically) to do nothing but make money. The fact that it was made cheaply shouldn’t make it feel cheap though—far from it. That’s just down to it being badly made. The movie simply crashes and burns right from the start, much like a high-speed car about to hit AWOL.