The title is taken from Shakespeare, but the only classic that matters to Jean-Claude Van Damme in Pound Of Flesh is the Bible. At one point, he threatens bodily harm with a copy of the Good Book, which has to be some kind of cinematic first. This literal Bible-thumping fits nicely in a film that takes time out to ponder divine presence. “If we thank God when things are good, why can’t we blame Him when things go wrong?” wonders one supporting character in conversation during a ruminative nighttime drive. It’s a pretty good question.
Pound Of Flesh, meanwhile, is a pretty rote B-movie—the third to team its star with director Ernie Barbarash, who at this point can be said to have to have won the unequivocal trust and support of the Muscles From Brussels, if nothing else. This time out, Van Damme plays Deacon, an off-the-books operator who gets rooked (and roofied) by a local hooker and wakes up one kidney lighter. Bad news in any circumstance, but downright inconvenient when he’s signed up to be an organ donor for his terminally ill niece. Hobbled but unbowed by his involuntary surgery, he heads out to get revenge and his kidney (in some order), shadowed by his meek city-mouse brother George (John Ralston), who’s shocked to discover that his closest blood relative is actually a remorseless killing machine.
The action hit being evoked here is Crank, which similarly began with Jason Statham coming to in the aftermath of some awful bodily violation, and Deacon’s increasing dependence on morphine to keep him frisky on his quest wrings a variation on the earlier film’s adrenaline-junkie gimmick. Frankly, Pound Of Flesh could have used more of Crank’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink silliness. Except for one scene where Deacon accidentally drags a rival combatant into the middle of a kickboxing practice and snaps his neck in front of a group of cheerful and then utterly creeped-out onlookers, everything is played straight—including the fraught fraternal dynamic between Deacon and George, who have mutual grievances that go back several decades.
Ralston isn’t too bad bouncing anguished dialogue against JCVD, who does his darnedest to convey the existential angst of a character given to saying things like “Killing is easy… it’s the living with it that’s hard.” (Probably no harder than having to deliver that line of dialogue.) The lack of distancing irony in the film is on some level refreshing, as it suggests that all of the parties involved are taking their jobs seriously. Earnestness only goes so far, however, especially when the stuff that might conceivably elevate the film—the choreography of the fights and chases, the mean motivations of the various villains—comes in under even a lowered bar of expectations. It’s not enough for Pound Of Flesh to be likable. Its existence isn’t an affront to the God its characters keep talking about, but it’s not exactly a reason for giving thanks, either.