Ernie Barbarash’s 2015 action film Pound of Flesh is a fascinating artefact. It is not due to its screenplay or production values, which are poor, nor is it due to its star Jean-Claude Van Damme. The film is set in Manila, yet it is clear it was shot in China. The majority of background players appear to be Chinese, for one thing, and all of the street signage is in Chinese as well. It is fascinating because no attempt is made to simulate any kind of Filipino setting. It is bizarre because there is no narrative need to be set in the Philippines at all. It is a distracting phenomenon, but it is also an oddly entertaining one. It points to a jaw-dropping lack of effort on Barbarash’s part, not to mention the entire production.
Van Damme plays former black-ops agent Deacon Lyle – an action star name if ever there was one – who has arrived in Manila to donate a kidney for his critically-ill niece. After rescuing a beautiful woman in peril, Lyle wakes up in a ice-filled bath and his kidney already missing. To save his niece’s live, he must fight his way through the local criminal underworld to get his organ back.
There is no questioning that this Canadian production is nothing more than filler for the direct-to-video and cable television markets. Lyle’s organ theft is a plot device to direct the character into a series of fight scenes and confrontations, and the vigour with which Van Damme kicks and punches his way through the enemy gangs belies his apparent invasive surgery. The film also features an awkward character relationship where Lyle’s brother (John Rawlston) – the father of his dying niece – is presented as a religiously devout man opposed to physical violence. More fool him for starring in an action movie. In itself the idea has merit, and could lead to some interesting moments, but this really does not feel like the most suitable film for it. Still, it does give Van Damme’s character an opportunity to kill a henchman with a Bible.
I have been trying out or revisiting quite a bit of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s back catalogue this year. I find him an interesting performer. He has never been the most impressive of actors, but he does have a unique screen appeal. I find myself enjoying his work against my better judgement.
I think part of the appeal is his physicality. He was a successful kickboxer before he was an actor (18 knockouts in 19 matches), but he was also a trained ballet dancer. There is a balletic style to his action scenes throughout his career: there is a stunning moment in Pound of Flesh involving doing the splits while stopping a rolling car and beating up its driver. It looks absurd. It also seems kind of wonderful.
He is also very game to play things straight in ridiculous movies. His performance as Colonel Guile in Steven E. De Souza’s Street Fighter (1994) is the result of a man recognising he is in a Hollywood pantomime and acting appropriately. The late, great Raul Julia did something similar, but whereas Julia undertook A-grade mugging for the masses, Van Damme provided a lighter touch. In Tsui Hark’s Knock Off (1998) he is playing the entire film front-to-back as comedy. In Pound of Flesh he goes on a fist-flying rampage to recover his own stolen kidney. It’s not simply ridiculous, it’s stupid – and yet Van Damme commits.
It is important to note that Pound of Flesh is not a good movie. Its script is terrible, its production values are weak, and there is a lackadaisical streak running through the film so overt that it borders on having contempt for its audience. Despite this, I enjoyed myself. The magical draw of Jean-Claude Van Damme is difficult to quantify.