“You see this bible? It will leave big bruises, and I will beat you with it if you don’t tell me what’s going on.”
Deacon Lyle (Jean-Claude Van Damme; interview here) is in Thailand to donate one of his kidneys to his niece, Isabella, who is dying of renal disease, and who lives there with her father/Deacon’s brother, George (John Ralston). While there, he intervenes when he sees a girl being victimized in an alley and fights off her abuser, causing him to flee. Deacon and the girl, Ana, abscond to the bar, and then to Deacon’s hotel room, where they engage in you-know-what. Like the famous urban legend of old, Deacon awakens the next morning in a bathtub filled with bloody ice and water. He crawls out and discovers the jagged scar across his back…and the tiny card on a shelf that says “pleasure doing business with you.” His kidney has been taken, and because he’s Van Damme, he’s going to cut a path of glorious violence across Thailand to get it back.
The moment that production announcements for Pound of Flesh hit the net, it became known as “that movie where someone steals Van Damme’s kidney and he flips out.” And it would be understandable to wonder if that is perhaps an unfair oversimplification of the film’s plot and themes.
In Pound of Flesh, someone steals Van Damme’s kidney, and he flips out. Oh sure, an awful lot of rhetoric is thrown in about God, and piousness, and good versus evil, and could be seen as one of those vapid selling points that perhaps may have gotten the script a little extra attention, but none of it really matters. The theme of good versus evil has been at play since cinema history’s first narrative film, and this inclusion of Christianity only seems to handicap the film in such a way that at times it can come off like one of those films – the kind made directly to appeal to a group of people who will go out of their way to support the film regardless of its quality.
You might think that reference is exclusively about Christian-aimed films, but it could just as easily be about Van Damme films. And, quite obviously, that’s why Pound of Flesh is as entertaining as it is. The God stuff, the pious stuff, the “nature of man” stuff is all well and good, but entirely superfluous and sometimes irritating. Sure, Deacon’s brother, George, wants to be a good and pious man in the eyes of God, but Deacon wants to pulverize men with a bible he just stole from his hotel room. Such a disparate view on not just being faithful, but on the everyday philosphies of these two men, is hilariously at-odds, in both a “real life” sense as well as a cinematic sense – one that cuts through all the philosophizing and makes its point very clear. Besides, the audience is here for two things: Van Damme, and entertainment. And that’s what Pound of Flesh is: entertainment. Pure, unfiltered, punch-and-kick-ridden entertainment.
When Van Damme does a double-take at the bible in the drawer of his hotel room nightstand and decides to take it along with him when he goes to beat men, it’s something that you want to happen, because the film you’re watching stars Van Damme. And when he goes to the nightclub to confront someone he believes to be involved, and a half-dozen thugs come out of nowhere, and Van Damme beats those men with that bible and stabs their eyes with its torn off cover, this is something that completely affirms why you’re watching this film in the first place. And even when Van Damme is capable of exerting impressively choreographed fighting techniques against his enemies considering he’s still technically “recovering” from his operation…because morphine…it doesn’t really matter whatsoever. Morphine. That’s it, that’s all, and honestly, read the summary for this film again: that’s all you need. Pound of Flesh offers a ridiculous concept, which begets a ridiculous film, which results in 90 minutes of completely harmless and harmful-looking fun.
The selling point for Pound of Flesh is that it seems almost like a parody by smarter filmmakers made to homage how silly action films of the early’90s had gotten, only it’s taken 100% seriously. Pound of Flesh seems like a throwback to that era of films – the Van Damme trifecta is on display here: a series of high-kicks, a split, and a tushy glimpse – filtered through the early-2000s era of Nu Image films. (Those who are privy to such an obscure reference are likely thinking, “Oh no, Nu Image?” right about now, and that’s perfectly understandable, but it’s also pretty telling of the experience Pound of Flesh is going to offer.)
Pound of Flesh marks director Ernie Barbarash’s third collaboration with Van Damme, following the solid Assassination Games and the decent Six Bullets. While one would think that a proven track record would have resulted in increasing production budgets, the opposite of that seems to be true. Much of Pound of Flesh looks cheap, from the dodgy green screen use to some of the more unflattering camera work. It’s a noticeable step down in quality from their previous films – Assassination Games looks like it could have been a theatrical release – and so the regression here is disappointing. What makes this so disappointing is that if one were to examine Van Damme’s last ten or so starring films, it would be evident that he’s trying – that he’s putting in effort to take on riskier roles and hold out for the better scripts and concepts. Fun concept aside, the actual look of Pound of Flesh is akin to something he would have made circa 2002’s Derailed (hey, from Nu Image!), and that is not a place in time anyone should ever have to revisit.
The supporting cast offers varying work. John Ralston (“The Lizzie Bordon Chronicles“) as George, Deacon’s brother, offers the most consistent and believable performance – as a man dealing with the impending loss of his daughter while also reconciling with his nature as a good man versus a good man being put in the position to do bad things. To look at Darren Shahlavi, who plays the villain Goran, is to wonder why they just didn’t cast Scott Adkins (he and Van Damme have worked together numerous times), who not only looks nearly identical to the actor, but who can fight just as impressively. Regardless, Shahlavi does fine work, blond highlights aside; his Goran breaks no new ground, but the man can certainly punch-kick. (Sadly, Mr. Shahlavi died in January of this year from complications to painkillers. He was to be involved in the Kickboxer reboot/sequel alongside Van Damme; how his death affects production, if at all, remains unknown at this time.) Aki Aleong, the West Indies’ answer to Angus Scrimm, brings humanity, a dash of humor, and an unconvincing performance to his role of Kung, a former colleague of Deacon who helps the brothers on their kidney-recovering task. (The actor had previously worked with Van Damme on The Quest, the star’s directorial debut.) Last, the beautiful and baby-faced Charlotte Peters makes her acting debut as Ana, Deacon’s siren, who lures him into all this trouble in the first place.
The script by first-time writer Joshua James isn’t unique in the sense that it’s the first to explore such a concept being carried out on film, but it is unique enough that it’s been married into the action genre, and with one of the most recognizable faces in that genre headlining the role. Where the script falters is the sometimes maudlin and heavy handed moments where the action ceases and the brothers are forced to confront the past, as well as the nature of the other – Deacon’s shiftless life of violence and desire versus George’s life of family and faith. From a filmmaker’s standpoint, perhaps this was deemed necessary to bring weight to the characters and motivation to their choices, but from an audience standpoint, every scene spent with the brothers looking forlorn and throwing out judgments is a scene not spent with Van Damme doing a split as he choke-holds the head of a henchman while hanging out of a moving car. (That’s bad.)
Where Pound of Flesh stumbles most heinously is with its visual effects, specifically with its utterly unconvincing use of green screen. This may sound like a minor detail to attack, especially being that the film was made on a very low budget, but because this effect is applied many times over – slipping Van Damme into brightly-lit nightclubs and the backseats of cars – it’s something that becomes frequently distracting, and unfortunately can result in some unintended humor.
All shortcomings aside, Pound of Flesh is destined to be a cult title with midnight marquee appeal, and those flaws will only add to its infamy. When Van Damme sits up in the back seat of the car but looks like he’s been digitally inserted into the scene weeks after the fact, honestly, it doesn’t matter, because he’s in the process of murdering dozens of men to reclaim his kidney. The use of quick camera zoom-ins to increase the “drama” of people talking calmly to each other does nothing more than make the audience roll their eyes. And the second-act slow-motion bellow of “NOOOOOOO!” is frankly pretty hilarious, and it’s definitely not supposed to be.
None of this matters. Because Pound of Flesh still offers a reasonable amount of fun, not just in spite of, but because of, its flaws.