Review: POUND OF FLESH Is Soft In All The Wrong Places
Jean-Claude Van Damme continues to explore and embrace his darker side in this modest Asian action thriller, as a kidnap & rescue specialist who falls foul of organ traffickers in the Philippines. Sadly, budgetary constraints and a lack of interesting action beats make Pound Of Flesh as sloppy and indigestible as its title might suggest.
Shortly after arriving in Manila, Deacon (Van Damme) comes to the aid of a young woman, Ana (Charlotte Peters), being manhandled by an overbearing suitor, Drake (Darren Shahlavi). But no sooner has he agreed to a "thank you" drink, Deacon wakes up to find himself in a bathtub full of ice, and his kidney missing. As if this wasn't reason to get mad on its own, Deacon was actually in town to donate said organ to his critically ill niece.
With the help of his estranged, deeply religious brother George (John Ralston), Deacon soon tracks down Ana, who reveals she was just a pawn in Drake's nefarious plans. She tags along for the ride, as Deacon reaches out to his underworld connections and despite medical advise to the contrary, begins a murderous rampage through the Philippine capital.
It has been a long time since Van Damme fronted a decently budgeted action film, but has kept himself busy with a steady stream of direct-to-video fare of wildly fluctuating quality. At the higher end of this scale are the likes of John Hyams' Universal Soldier sequels and Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD, while even modest productions like Peter Hyams' Enemies Closer can prove somewhat entertaining.
Unfortunately, Pound Of Flesh falls towards the lower end of the scale, both in terms of production budget and entertainment value, with the former often having a detrimental impact on the latter. Narratively, the plot is wafer thin, calling upon Van Damme to do little more than repeatedly demand the whereabouts of his kidney. In that regard it recalls how Tony Jaa went looking for his elephant in Tom Yum Goong - but without that film's impressive action pay-offs.
While nominally set in the Philippines, Pound Of Flesh was mostly filmed in Guangdong Province, China, which is frequently rather obvious from the Chinese signage, extras and surroundings. Driving sequences are poorly green-screened (as, rather inexplicably, are some shots in a nightclub), while scenes in bars and underground fight clubs simply don't feature sufficient extras or credible scenery to sell themselves authentically.
But looking beyond the limitations of the production budget, Van Damme does show flashes of dramatic presence at times, particularly when confronted about his questionable life choices by his squeaky clean brother. Pound Of Flesh is as much about Deacon atoning for a lifetime of sin as it is about kicking butts and taking out bad guys. But when Jean Claude Van Damme gives one of the most credible performances in a Jean Claude Van Damme film, that rarely promises a good time ahead.
John Ralston offers solid support as the peaceful innocent swept up in his brother's maelstrom of violence. Playing straight man to Van Damme's crazy, Ralston is polished and professional, which only further illustrates the lack of credible acting talent on screen around them. Charlotte Peters as Ana, in particular, never convinces as someone caught up in the seedy Manila underworld, while her thick Irish accent proves more distracting than alluring. In fact the cast showcases such a diverse array of accents that any attempts in the script to explain them (Deacon served in the "French Special Forces" apparently) are quickly abandoned.
Most viewers drawn to this project, however, will be more interested in the action than the performances or narrative. When it comes to the fighting, however, Pound Of Flesh never manages to deliver the goods. Having just had a major organ removed means Deacon is rarely up for much of a fight, but without Van Damme pulling his weight on screen that leaves director Ernie Barabarash (Assassination Games, 6 Bullets) with precious few options.
This is especially disappointing when the film has Ip Man 2's Darren Shahlavi cast as the principle villain (in what would tragically prove to be one of his final screen appearances). He does manage two quick skirmishes with Deacon - at the beginning and end of the film - but neither are likely to get pulses racing or impress aficionados. A central car chase proves little more than a crawl through an obvious studio backlot, while a major sequence in an underground fight club barely bothers to point the camera towards those competing. Surely, even if the film's principles weren't up for a fight, this would have been a perfect opportunity to showcase some up-and-coming talent.
Pound Of Flesh has a decent enough premise, and sufficient talent on screen to cobble together a modestly respectable Friday night slice of hokum, but unfortunately it seems that even that low bar was out of the film's reach. This is a clear case of desperate cost and corner-cutting at the expense of the final product. Even the most forgiving of Van Damme's legion of loyal fans is likely to feel short-changed by this sub-par excuse for an action-packed thrill ride.