TL;DR: AWOL filters Duterte’s Drug War into a tale of state-sponsored vigilantism that’s not only morally irresponsible, but boring.
Lt. Abel Ibarra (Gerald Anderson) is the leader of an elite sniper squad, highly respected & easily befriended by his peers. He takes one final mission – hunting down a terrorist leader – before he settles in the city to teach in military school, so he can be closer to his family. They succeed, but it has bigger ramifications than they thought when a bomb snuck inside a lechon (roast pig) kills of his teammates & their families. Abel & his family are taken into a protection program, while the police investigates the crime. However, Abel thinks the investigation isn’t proceeding quickly as he wanted to, so he decides to ignore his superior’s orders & undergo an absence without leave, hunting down the people who are trying to kill him & his family.
Men, and it’s almost always a man, out to deliver justice on their own due to the failures of a flawed criminal justice system are a common trope in action movies. AWOL goes into familiar territory, with Abel picking off his enemies one by one with efficiency. What makes it different is it cribs details from the current War on Drugs launched by President Rodrigo Duterte, and tweaking it to suit its own needs. Abel fights back as a vigilante in order to keep his family safe. His final mission involves a terrorist who has ties to a powerful man whose son is a drug-addled convicted rapist; because of course he is. His superior is initially hesitant to support him, but after Abel convinces him by underlining the danger his family is in, he not only hides Abel’s actions from the police, but gives gives him intel on his assailants.
It would be fine if the movie examines Abel’s actions & its roots, but the movie is more focused on delivering the thrills. Make no mistake: this is an escapist fantasy, where one man serves out justice to his enemies by killing them, sometimes slowly, since the government is mired with incompetence & red tape to do its job effectively. It’s not interested in probing Abel’s impulses nor the military’s complicity in supporting Abel, since the movie doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with his actions; even if at one point he tortures one of the people who attempted to kill him when that man is so badly injured he couldn’t fight back. Despite Abel’s horrifying actions, it distills a morally complex tale to a simple, glorified revenge tale.
This aspect even seeps its way on the action sequences. In the movie’s point of view, Lt. Abel Ibarra is a skilled “good” guy, while the rest are fodder for his bullets; his name is Abel Ibarra for crying out loud. We know because he’s the movie’s moral center & he can barrel through enemies with few struggles. The movie’s utter belief on its lead & his morals sucks any tension inherent in the premise.
This could’ve been a minor issue if the action scenes are enjoyable, but it also fails on that front. While the movie is buoyed with great production values & crisp night lighting, the action scenes are a bland, point & shoot affair. There’s nothing slick nor inventive about the action. It takes the shaky-cam approach, but without the imagination to make it work.
The cast couldn’t even make the characters seem more like cardboard cutouts, but that’s mostly the failure of a limp script. Gerald Anderson does his impression of a scorned vigilante & it never feels authentic. He’s better when he’s bonding with his wife & child, but that part is barely in the movie. The rest of the cast barely make an impression, doing their best to make their roles more substantial but failing to do so.
However, the best thing about the movie is its brief runtime. If you’re going to spend less time with this movie, the better. There’s always been an authoritarian bent to vengeance films, but by cherry-picking the grim realities of the Philippines’ current drug war & reflecting it back at us for our entertainment, it ignores its own political context & simplifies an ongoing problem in the Philippines & Duterte’s response to it in until nothing substantial is left. It’s irresponsible, & it’s done in service of an action movie that doesn’t deliver on the cheap thrills.