Shitty Movie Sundays: Pound of Flesh

Pound of Flesh, the 2015 Jean-Claude Van Damme action thriller from screenwriter Joshua Todd James and director Ernie Barbarash, may as well have been called Boilerplate. It’s a movie unconcerned with breaking any new ground, or stretching the talents of its star. It’s as interesting and engaging as the music in a doctor’s office waiting room. It captures one’s attention like whatever sports talk show is on the television hanging over the bar on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s a painting of a lighthouse amongst an entire crate of lighthouse paintings at the local flea market. It’s inoffensive, predictable, and reliable. Because of that, no matter how much ass gets kicked, it’s pretty dull.

Van Damme plays Deacon Lyle, former French special forces, who travels to Manila in the Philippines to donate one of his kidneys to his sick niece, Isabella (Adele Baughan). His brother, George (John Ralston), meanwhile, is a college professor and devout Catholic who has spent many years in the city. The two had been estranged, owing to the fact Deacon matches as a donor for Isabella, while George does not. It’s not hard math.

The first night in town, Deacon is tricked into rescuing a hooker, Ana (Charlotte Peters), from an assault by her pimp. She invites him out for a drink, screws him, drugs him, and that precious kidney is removed while he is unconscious. Deacon awakens to a horrible throbbing in his side, and the cold, hard realization that the life-saving kidney is now in the wind, with only ten hours or so to get it back. If it seems like an amazing coincidence that Deacon’s kidney would be stolen the day before he was due to donate, don’t fret. The movie explains that.

Deacon enlists the help of local crime lord emeritus Kung (Aki Aleong) for info and support. George, despite being unaccustomed to any kind of action flick violence, insists on coming along. The trail leads back to Ana, who, genuinely horrified that she was used to aid in stealing an organ, also joins the team.

Twists and turns follow. Fights happen, people are killed. Clues lead to more clues and more violence. Finally, the wayward kidney is tracked to a rich and powerful man, leading to denouement at a fortified compound, and a predictable resolution.

Pound of Flesh is something of a wearying film. Not because so much happens so fast, or because the stakes are so high. It’s because everything is so rote that it becomes a challenge to pay attention to the film. The very effort of staying engaged takes mental energy in the same way as solving a math equation on test day. It makes onePound of Flesh movie poster frustrated at oneself. So many distractions are at hand for the 21st century movie viewer, and it’s almost impossible to stop one’s wandering hands during this movie. Phone or tablet beckons. Even life — you know, what happens on the other side of the picture window — could intrude while one is watching this flick.

This isn’t all on Van Damme, either. He appeared to be into making this film. He’s fit, flexible, and freshly dyed. At 54 years old, his high kicks still land with satisfying thuds. And, while it’s absurd to expect that a man who just had a kidney removed could dish out, and take, the punishment he does, in moments where there is no ass kicking, Van Damme gave about as nuanced and believable a performance as he ever has.

Pound of Flesh is a commodity action movie. There are sixteen producers listed in the credits. It’s a general rule that films with that many producers, in effect, have zero producers. There is no one at the top of the pyramid. Rather, it’s a gaggle of people interested in nothing more than their percentage, and it shows. Never mind the auteur theory of film. I have yet to see any b-movie with this many producers where a director was able to overcome institutional malaise and deliver something superlative. The least this movie could have done was suck. Instead, it’s forgettable — a hole where one loses 104 minutes of one’s life of an evening, and days later can barely remember the experience at all. Its lack of disdain for viewership is all that keeps it out of the nether reaches of the Watchability Index. Still, it settles well into the lower half, bumping Psycho Pike out of the #363 spot.

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