Unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme has never been known to have a charismatic, larger-than-life on-screen presence. He never had the memorable quotes or the classic movie roles. What set Van Damme apart from the rest of the pack was how he was able to use his martial arts background to create entertaining fight sequences. We remember him for his splits, his spinning heel kicks, but less so for his acting talents. However, as he proved in 2008’s “JCVD,” an old, broken-down, beaten-up Jean-Claude Van Damme is actually quite compelling to watch. In “Pound of Flesh,” we get to see Van Damme tap into the darker, more grounded side of his persona once again, but it’s unfortunately stuck in this third-rate, run-of-the-mill actioner, which, for some reason, was edited to look like an episode of “CSI.”
Now, let’s face it, there are a certain number of concessions you have to make when approaching a film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. Each plot point is usually just an excuse to watch the “Muscles from Brussels” kick some ass. You don’t expect a movie like this to be original or to have its plot make any sense. Expectations are very low here. What makes “Pound of Flesh” feel like such a missed opportunity, though, is that it has a completely ridiculous plot, yet fails to have any fun with it. While, in the beginning, we do get to watch Van Damme beat the living daylights out of people with a copy of the Holy Bible, that’s pretty much where the entertainment ends. The movie has zero interest in maintaining that level of absurdity, to its detriment.
Van Damme plays Deacon, a former black ops agent who visits the Philippines with the intention of donating a kidney to his dying niece. On the day before the operation, however, Deacon wakes up to find that his kidney has been stolen. What are the chances? This leaves him on a trail of revenge as he attempts to get his kidney back by any means possible. As you’d expect, this involves killing lots of people.
It’s a silly premise that’s taken way too seriously, and it’s a shame because the movie contains a couple of goofy supporting characters. You have the deeply religious brother of Deacon, who, at one point, quotes scripture while slowly walking up a flight of stairs, carrying a shotgun. And there’s Kung (Aki Aleong), an old wise man, who can get access to surveillance footage and bottles of morphine whenever Deacon needs them. There were so many ways to add life into these characters, but the script never gives them the opportunity.
“Pound of Flesh” has all the ingredients you need to make a stupidly fun action thriller, but it’s weighed down by a script that relies too heavily on flashbacks and insists on adding cheesy drama in the most somber way possible. Combine that with an overbearing score and a couple of seizure-inducing establishing shots, and you have yourself a movie that doesn’t know how to get out of its own way. It’s like an amusement park that forces you to eat all of its terrible food, instead of just letting you enjoy the rides.
The movie opens in the most unbearable fashion too. Deacon is submerged in a bathtub full of ice as he keeps having flashbacks of what happened the previous night. The flashbacks are an absolute eyesore, and while the movie eventually settles itself down, the first 15 minutes really do leave a bad taste in you mouth.
And yet, what keeps the ship afloat and almost makes “Pound of Flesh” watchable is Jean-Claude Van Damme’s performance. Yes, he’s not as smooth in the action scenes as he was 20 years ago, but he does showcase a few moves that remind you why he can be so fun to watch. Beyond that, he actually manages to hold his own during the film’s more dramatic moments. Unlike everyone else in the movie, his character does have a degree of self-awareness. He knows he’s not the badass he used to be and even admits to his brother that he has a hard time living with the choices he’s made. Deacon is world-weary and tired. Even when he’s fighting, he never forgets that he just had surgery the night before. Van Damme handles both the action and drama with equal amounts of grace. It’s a spirited performance and you can’t help but respect the man for not phoning it in.
On a more bittersweet note, “Pound of Flesh” also features veteran actor/stunt coordinator Darren Shahlavi, who plays the main villain. This would sadly prove to be one of his last ever movie roles as he suffered a fatal heart attack earlier in the year. Like Van Damme, Shahlavi started out in martial arts, and that shows in the climactic fight scene between the two actors, one of the very few highlights in the film. It’s a shame the two didn’t get more screen time together.
In the end, the only reason why anyone would want to watch “Pound of Flesh” to begin with is to see Jean-Claude Van Damme in action. While the movie does occasionally succeed on that front, it’s hardly worth trudging through all the heavy-handed drama just to get to those moments. The movie has “direct-to-DVD production value” written all over it, exemplified by the bad green screen shots used in all of the driving scenes. Again, you have to hand it to Jean-Claude Van Damme who really did the best he could with the material he was given, but there’s really no reason to see this in a movie theater. It’s barely worth renting on a lonely Saturday night. [D]