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Pound of Flesh

D: Ernie Barbarash / 105m

Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, John Ralston, Aki Aleong (as Leonard Gonzales), Charlotte Peters, Darren Shahlevi, David P. Booth, Adele Baughan

While visiting Manila, kidnap and rescue expert Deacon Lyle (Van Damme) wakes up in his hotel room in a bath full of ice water and his right kidney missing. From hazy memories of the night before, Deacon remembers rescuing a woman (Peters) from her abusive boyfriend (Shahlevi) and her coming back to his room. He calls an old friend, Kung (Aleong) for help, and though Kung brings morphine, he also brings a warning: for Deacon to let it go. But he can’t, and the reason is made clear with the arrival of his brother, George (Ralston); George’s daughter needs a kidney transplant and in two days Deacon was going to be the donor.

Deacon goes to the bar where he and the woman went for a drink. A barmaid there reveals that the woman’s name is Ana Riley and the man who was abusing her is called Drake, and that they can be found at Gratis, an underground fight club. Using his contacts, Kung finds out where the club is being held that night. There Deacon finds Ana. She tells him that Drake paid her to be with Deacon and that it was a one time deal. Drake arrives and there is a shootout, but Drake gets away. Regrouping, Deacon, George, Ana and Kung go to George’s summer home. There it’s revealed that Deacon is really the father of George’s daughter; they also work out that whoever wants Deacon’s kidney must be on the donor register.

With the help of one of George’s ex-students, they discover the intended recipient is an Englishman, Simon Rants (Booth), with ties to an organisation that provides security via contracted mercenaries. Deacon decides to launch a one-man assault on Rants’s home. When his plan begins to backfire, George goes in as well, but what they eventually find changes all their preconceptions.

Pound of Flesh - scene

As a member of that illustrious group, the Lesser-Spotted Eighties Action Stars, Jean-Claude Van Damme is still busy churning out low-budget action flicks that bypass cinemas and head straight for DVD. Devised to be filmed in far-flung corners of the globe, and with minimal attempts at providing either a decent plot or characterisation, these movies focus on the requisite number of action or fight scenes and build to a predictable showdown between the hero and the villain. In some ways they’re the action movie equivalent of comfort food.

But sometimes comfort food isn’t enough by itself, and so it proves with Pound of Flesh, an action movie that tries to include concepts of fatalism, guilt, and religious ambivalence in an attempt to beef up the rather pedestrian plot. As an attempt at adding depth to an otherwise solidly underwhelming script it’s not such a bad idea, it’s just that it’s all handled so badly. You know these concepts are only there to fill in the downtime between fight scenes when one of the characters abandons his up-til-then deeply held beliefs, as George does here, going from guilt-ridden pacifist to gun-toting vigilante at the drop of a hat. (It doesn’t help that Ralston can’t quite carry it off.)

The script, by Joshua James, lets itself down in other ways. The most obvious is in the way it asks the viewer to suspend all disbelief as Deacon takes part in fight after fight so soon after losing his kidney. Deacon gets punched, kicked, thrown about, flash-bombed, stabbed, and aside from the odd look of discomfort, shrugs it off with the pithy comment, “I crossed the Afghan desert on two broken legs. So, this is nothing.” It’s the kind of witless macho posturing that should be ironic now, but instead it’s laughable, and the high point of the movie’s few attempts at humour (though it probably wasn’t meant that way). The script also asks us to accept that Drake (and we have to assume this) would go to all the trouble of going to George’s summer home and rigging the fridge with a grenade, so that whoever opens it next gets blown up. As that could be anyone, at any time, it’s an incredibly stupid “surprise” moment, and reinforces the idea that scripts for low budget action movies rarely reach a second draft.

Doing his best to make it work, Van Damme plays it straight but it all requires too much work, even for him, to bring it up to par. It’s a shame that his career seems to have stalled again in the direct-to-DVD arena after his “breakout” turn as himself in JCVD (2008). That movie showed a multi-faceted Van Damme, and a level of acting ability we hadn’t seen before, but he doesn’t seem to have capitalised on that at all. So now we still have him making the same moves he always makes: the high kicks, the splits, etc. And he looks so tired. He’ll be fifty-five this year, but he looks much older, much more worn down, and while this fits the character quite well given that he’s had a kidney removed, it does give rise to the possibility that Van Damme is tired himself of always being the action hero (maybe).

The rest of the cast provide varying turns, with Ralston overdoing the whole “God is good” angle, while Peters – who from certain angles resembles a thinner Rachel Weisz – makes her feature debut and seems to keep herself at a distance, as if she’s realised early on that this isn’t going to be the springboard for her career she was hoping for. Aleong is underused, and when he is on screen, is either asking for money, or bemoaning his character’s lack of influence, but always as the wise Oriental who meditates on the vagaries of life. As the main villain of the piece, Shahlavi – who sadly passed away in January this year – is as memorable as any other of Van Damme’s adversaries over the years, but does look fetching in mercenary black.

Barbarash is an old hand at this, having worked with Van Damme twice before, but he doesn’t bring anything new to the table, and several of the fight scenes suffer from having the camera in the wrong place, as well as being poorly cut together. China stands in for Manila (obvious from all the street signs), and overall, the whole thing has the air of a contractual obligation.

Rating: 3/10 – another depressing entry in Van Damme’s filmography, Pound of Flesh has all the hallmarks of a leftover script dusted off to meet its star’s requirements; with only a minimum of effort all round, it could almost be the cinematic description of “lacklustre”.