Jean-Claude Van Damme's Pound of Flesh
Jean-Claude Van Damme fans have been anticipating Pound of Flesh for quite some time. Being a big fan myself, of JCVD and and many others involved in the project, the setup was intriguing for pretty much any genre fan. Following plenty of publicity surrounding the film, including his appearance on Conan (re-enacting his legendary Kickboxer dance here) the film has finally arrived.
In China to donate a kidney to his dying niece, Deacon (Van Damme), a former black-ops agent, wakes the day before the operation to find he is the latest victim of organ theft. Stitched up, Deacon descends from his hotel in search of his stolen kidney and, aided by old friend Kung (Aki Aleong) and brother George (John Ralston), he carves a blood-soaked path through the darkest corners of the city brothels, fight clubs, back-alley black markets, and elite billionaire estates. He follows the trail to a band of criminals, stealing and selling organs on the black market, fronted by ex-SAS soldier Drake (Darren Shahlavi). With the clock ticking for his niece's survival, he will retrieve the kidney at any cost.
What's the verdict? For me, the film works in a number of ways and adds something new to the JCVD action repertoire. Though far from perfect with some unfortunate flaws (and we'll discuss why later) it's worth a look, particularly for fans of Van Damme and the late Darren Shahlavi (Ip Man 2), who the film is also dedicated to. Equally, the action is consistently strong and adds some interesting ingredients to the melting pot of Van Damme's fighting style.
Marking the third collaboration between leading man Jean-Claude Van Damme and director Ernie Barbarash (following Assassination Games and Six Bullets), this definitely takes the team into darker, seedier territory, creating an underworld of sleaze, corruption and black market dealings.
Admirably, the performances are solid and, better known for his dramatic capabilities in recent years, Van Damme brings battle-scarred maturity to the role, with strong support from John Ralston and Charlotte Peters. It was also nice to see veteran actor Aki Aleong who previously shared the screen with JCVD in his directorial debut, The Quest. I felt this to be a nice throwback to Chris Dubois and Khao on the beach with the Muay Thai fighters.
Mike Leeder, who worked as co-producer, even plays a cameo as henchman Boris and looks suitably menacing, while stuntman Brahim Achabbakhe plays a supporting role and gets some nice moments during a nightclub fight, also taking on German fight-talent Mike Moeller! The late Darren Shahlavi dominates his scenes as charismatic bad guy Drake and clearly relishes the role, playing a villain you love to hate. He earns some nice opportunities blending signature kicks and moves within the MMA-influenced choreography which adds a new flavour to the JCVD arsenal. The action is a clear highlight and big credit goes to Hong Kong action veteran (and Donnie Yen collaborator) John Salvitti and his fight team for some truly inventive, dynamic fight action including the already infamous splits across the car sequence. For me, this joins the ranks as one of the Van Damme's coolest moments on screen in the past 15-20 years.
Unfortunately, some great moments are jarred by ropey green screen which crops up a few times throughout. My biggest gripe with this is that it snaps you out from enjoying the ride and feels outdated, not the product of a JCVD film from 2015! It felt avoidable and it's a shame this had an impact. There is also some pretty obvious doubling throughout which was a letdown. Overall, these aspects don't so much negate the positives, but feel out of place peppered among other strong and cool moments. Where the film shines, it's obvious a lot of work went in to the mix. Just take a look at John Salvitti's pre-viz of the action below...
But, despite the flaws, Pound of Flesh has some fun takeaway moments for audiences, and most notably fans of Van Damme, Shahlavi and students of solid, tightly-knit fight choreography. For these aspects, alone, it's well worth seeking out. It could have been a much stronger piece overall, had these faults and shortcomings been fixed and more time invested in those elements, leading one to imagine what could have been (a more martial-inspired rendition of Taken).
However, as it stands, we have an entertaining (if not untypical) low budget actioner with some moves and action never-before-seen from JCVD, demonstrating the added potential when collaborating with the right team. The closing tribute to late actor Darren Shahlavi is also a nice touch and leads one to revisit his impressive, if sadly short-lived career, and celebrate one of Martial Arts cinema's brightest talents who, in one of his last roles, does a very fine job.
Pound of Flesh is out now on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK from High Fliers Films.