Movie Review: POUND OF FLESH Succeeds Despite Itself

High expectations mar this otherwise fine JCVD entry.

With its “Van Damme is Back!” tagline, charmingly goofy premise, and trailer that highlights Jean-Claude Van Damme doing the splits in perhaps the most hilariously bizarre manner ever, Pound of Flesh has a definite opportunity to be seen more than other JCVD direct-to-video effort. People who normally don’t watch the guy anymore might actually make the time to see this one, and while I’m always happy when Van Damme can get a bigger audience, I do wish they were seeing a better film.

When it’s good, DTV action is extremely good. More and more often, great gems have been coming down the pike from aged action heroes in weird locations with simple stories and a focus on well-shot, lean action. Often, these films actually improve on the nostalgia promised by the actors they feature. This is especially true with Jean-Claude Van Damme, who not only became a great actor at some point, but also consistently manages to get himself into higher than normal quality films.

Most people don’t know this, however, and likely still entertain a knee-jerk opinion of DTV action as inferior to Hollywood offerings. If these people were to see something like Ninja II or even Skin Trade, that opinion might face a challenge. Pound of Flesh, on the other hand, will only confirm their erroneous assumptions. I find that incredibly frustrating.

It’s not that Pound of Flesh is even bad. It’s actually quite good. But it suffers from a lot of issues that aren’t usually big deals any more in the DTV world. The film is plagued with super cheesy dialog, lame casting, obvious stunt doubles, awkward ADR, and an obnoxious reliance on awful green screen backdrops. Van Damme plays a mostly silent badass for the first half of the film, giving him little opportunity to actually act or give us a character. The premise is neat, but almost everything else feels stock and without life.

As for that premise, it starts out pretty simple. Jean-Claude Van Damme gets freaky with a pretty lady and wakes up in a tub of ice with one of his kidneys missing. Goddammit, he’s going to get that kidney back no matter how many asses he has to kick and faces he has to smash with is favorite weapon - a Bible.

That sounds like a great movie, but Pound of Flesh is oddly at its most boring the closer it adheres to what this plot promises. Van Damme hitting people with his Bible is fun for a bit, but because he starts out as such a cypher, it doesn’t really matter much. Furthermore, the fights are well-shot, but not all that cool or inventive in and of themselves. There is one funny bit where a fight moves into and interrupts a Lionheart-type streetfight that's going on in the background. But other than and the infamous splits moment, very little of Pound of Flesh's action demands special attention.

Fortunately, things get better once the film focuses on the family drama between JCVD and his lame brother (played by John Ralston who clearly comes from the John Corbett/Michael Bolton corner of the DTV actor pool). I don’t want to spoil anything, but their beef with each other and the importance of JCVD’s kidney becomes hilariously complicated once the plot slows down enough for these people to actually talk to each other. This also means Van Damme finally gets to act and create a real character. Normally this would be an action movie’s boring part, but it’s actually the best stuff Pound of Flesh has to offer, and when it resurfaces for its big action finale, we have a lot more invested in the outcome.

Pound of Flesh is good. It’s not top-tier Van Damme, and it most definitely should not be anyone’s entry point to the DTV action world. But if you keep all that in mind when you watch it, lower your expectations a bit, it still has plenty to offer JCVD fans.