A man wakes up submerged in an ice bath in the center of an unfamiliar Chinese hotel room. He staggers out, wraps himself in a towel, and scrutinizes his reflection in the mirror. He looks like hell; his skin is somehow simultaneously wrinkly and oily, and rings of sickly purple encircle his eyes. After a moment, he turns around and discovers, to his horror, a gruesome fresh scar across his back. On a shelf near the bath, he finds some bottles of pills, a wad of cash, and a laminated card that reads “PLEASURE DOING BUSINESS WITH YOU.” Someone’s taken his kidney.
At that moment, viewers know exactly what sort of film to expect over the coming 100 minutes. Because the latest victim claimed by the international scourge of organ theft is no mere man, and this is no factory-issue action potboiler. He is Jean-Claude Van Damme, and this is a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.
That isn’t intended as a compliment or an insult. Like most entries in the wild and woolly canon of JCVD cinema, Pound Of Flesh is defined by the wild disparity in quality between its parts. The aspects of the film that work can all be traced back to Van Damme, and his surplus of screen presence. As he and his fellow action stalwarts of the late 1980s and 1990s have aged into their golden years, Van Damme has only grown more brutal and rocklike. The man takes stoniness to new levels. His severe visage is so devoid of emotion that he resembles a real-life iteration of The Thing. And yet this boulder of a man cracks in a matter of seconds, turning to terrible acts of violence when presented with even a slight challenge.
Van Damme earned his loyal, rabid fan base through a combination of relentless intensity and jaw-dropping martial-arts mastery. (Yes, he busts out one of his signature full splits midway through the film, and yes, it’s impossible not to break into a goofy smile in response.) As former black-ops agent Deacon Lyle, he spends most of the film in overdrive, whipped into the sort of magnificent frenzy that only organ-theft-motivated revenge rampages can elicit. And yet the script conspires to put a damper on the film’s manic charms and Van Damme’s prevailing magnetism at every turn.
“Jean-Claude Van Damme goes on revenge rampage after Chinese criminals steal his kidney” is a damn fine starting point for a film, but director Ernie Barbarash and screenwriter Joshua James find ways to forestall delivery of the goods. (Though even their most intent efforts can’t rob Pound Of Flesh of the simple joys inherent in the phrase “Where’s my kidney?!”) Somewhere along the line, James picked up loftier thematic aspirations for his script, and the script endlessly delays the film’s grungy setpieces with scenes of moral turgidity.
Deacon isn’t in fury-mode because someone absconded with his kidney; the guy has two, and he isn’t greedy. He only traveled to China in the first place because his brother George’s precocious ailing daughter requires a transplant. Deacon is raring to retrieve the organ from the unlucky sunovabitch who ordered it, but as a man of the cloth, George (John Ralston) has his misgivings, which he airs over the course of several plodding quasi-theological lectures that only gum up the film’s works. Deacon deals an excess of violence throughout the film, even going so far as to punch a woman in the stomach using a Bible, and yet George won’t stop harping on the neat-o philosophical quandary of taking one life to preserve another, even if it’s his daughter’s.
Barbarash doesn’t do much to compensate for the misshapen script, either. Fumbling camerawork and incoherent editing rob the film’s generous fight sequences of their oomph, and amateurish green screen hobbles a car-chase sequence. In some fights—a shot of a man getting stabbed in the eyeball from the knife’s POV, for instance—the violence veers from the realm of fun into gratuitousness. Just as with Barbarash’s last feature, the Michael Jai White-led Falcon Rising, the leading man’s charisma very nearly compensates for the tactless direction in Pound Of Flesh. Even with a missing kidney, Van Damme has more guts than his director.