AKA: Maximum Blood
Director: Ernie Barbarash
Writer: Joshua James
Producer: Henry Luk, Mike Leeder
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Darren Shahlavi, Aki Aleong, John Ralston, Jason Tobin, Philippe Joly, Brahim Achabbakhe, Andrew Ng, Mike Leeder, Adele Baughan
Running Time: 104 min.
About two minutes into Pound of Flesh, Jean-Claude Van Damme wakes up in a bathtub full of ice. His skin pallid, his eyes as sunken as a skull’s, he slowly becomes aware of his surroundings. Crawling from the tub, he is trembling, naked, and afraid. He tentatively inspects the massive scar across his side and soon comes to the realization that he has had his kidney removed against his will. The horror of this moment is startling portrayed by Van Damme, who appears in this instance less an action hero and more a frightened victim. Quite frankly, we’ve never seen the actor as vulnerable as he is here.
Unfortunately, this is the only dramatically interesting scene in the entirety of Pound of Flesh. Shortly after Van Damme throws some pants on and makes a few phone calls to his old covert agent connections, the movie becomes your typical low-budget action flick as Van Damme storms through the seedy bars and back alleys of China shouting “Where’s my kidney?!” to unintentionally hilarious effect. You see, before Van Damme was drugged and placed under the knife, he had traveled to the country to donate his organ to a terminally ill niece. If he doesn’t get the missing kidney back in time, his niece is sure to die.
The old ‘waking up in a bathtub of ice’ story has been around for years as something of an urban legend, and was even the premise behind the 2004 Hong Kong thriller Koma from The Bullet Vanishes director Chi-Leung Law. No doubt it’s a serviceable set-up for an action movie; the problem emerges as soon as fists start flying the viewer realizes that, while Jean-Claude Van Damme’s name receives the top billing, his stand-in might receive more screentime than he does.
Although there have been no behind-the-scenes stories or rumors of reshoots, it’s difficult to watch Pound of Flesh and not get the impression it must have been something of a troubled production. There are scenes where it’s glaringly obvious that Van Damme was filmed in front of a green screen and inserted into the middle of previously shot sequences. Worse yet, Van Damme’s stunt double is visible in nearly every action shot in which the camera isn’t facing Van Damme head-on. No doubt Van Damme is an international star, and an actor who’s getting up there in years, so insurance purposes or his health may necessitate the use of a stand-in; however, it’s never been this apparent and easy to spot.
The fight choreography in Pound of Flesh arrives from the talented John Salvetti, an action coordinator who needs no introduction once you realize he’s the guy who fought Donnie Yen at the end of Tiger Cage 2. What he brings to Pound of Flesh is a more grounded, realistic style of combat that favors grappling and other moves that will likely be familiar to fans of Mixed Martial Arts. While his choreography is topnotch, its impact is frequently marred by choppy editing; it also has the unfortunate habit of downplaying Jean-Claude Van Damme and his co-star Darren Shahlavi’s flair for the more acrobatic, high-flying, Hong Kong-influenced style of onscreen martial arts.
It’s impossible to discuss Pound of Flesh without addressing the death of Darren Shahlavi, an immensely talented screen performer who died tragically young shortly after filming. Shahlavi had a gift for playing formidable villains, whether as the British boxer in Ip Man 2, Kano in the popular Mortal Kombat: Legacy web series, or the kung fu serial killer in the Gary Daniels cult classic Bloodmoon. His untimely passing has robbed us of a gifted martial artist who no doubt had many, many more promising roles ahead of him. Fortunately, he’s a highlight of Pound of Flesh, as he seems to be the only actor onscreen who realizes he’s in the middle of a direct-to-video action flick and decides to have fun with it. Shahlavi’s clearly relishing the chance to play a baddie opposite Van Damme and he delivers an entertaining, over-the-top performance to match.
While Van Damme himself appears invested in the Pound of Flesh’s dramatic moments, his performance is undone by a script that paints his character as blatantly unlikable. Van Damme is placed at odds against his long-suffering brother (portrayed by John Ralston), a church-going, violence-averse college professor. Once we learn that this character is literally sterile and had his wife stolen by Van Damme, we realize he’s only here so Van Damme’s character Deacon can look cooler in comparison – which doesn’t exactly endear the viewer to the selfish Deacon. Lest we forget that this guy was drinking it up and engaging in a one night stand the night before he was supposed to donate his kidney to his niece. It’s enough to make you wish Van Damme would stick to playing the melancholy assassins he usually portrays in recent films like Six Bullets.
Thanks to the genuine quality of movies like Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning and Ninja II, fans are coming to expect more from direct-to-video action movies. The bar has been raised, which is why it’s such a shame that Pound of Flesh feels beamed in from the mid-2000’s, back when Steven Seagal was sleepwalking through movies where he simply overdubbed his voice onto footage of a stand-in actor. It’s anyone’s guess why Pound of Flesh ended up being such a sloppily assembled product – no doubt time and budgetary restraints played a part – but it’s easy to feel let down when our action stars of old appear content to deliver such a substandard film. Simply put, the fans who have supported Van Damme over the years deserve more than this.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 5/10