Impact's original cover star Jean-Claude Van Damme makes a welcome return to leading man duties after a number of projects Enemies Closer, Welcome to the Jungle, The Expendables 2 etc- which have seen him in cameo or supporting roles - with the release of Pound of Flesh.
The premise: Deacon Lyle (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is a former soldier turned K and R (Kidnap & Rescue) specialist who's life has been spent in various hell-holes, with his personal life suffering as a result of his job and his attitude. He arrives in the Philippines to meet his estranged brother George (John Ralston) whose daughter (Adele Baughain) is in need of a kidney transplant. The relationship between the brothers has become increasingly strained over the eyars, but blood is thicker than water, ands Deacon has volunteered his kidney for his neice.
But fate deals a very different hand, and after a chance encounter with a mysterious woman Anna (Charlotte Peters), Deacon comes to in a blood soaked bath tub filled with ice, and his kidney in the hands of black market organ dealers. With time rapidly running out for his neice, Deacon must call upon his past experiences and connections with the Manila underworld.
A call to an old associate Kung (Aki Aleong) leads Deacon and George into a dark and desperate world of pimps, prostitution, undergroudn fight clubs, black-market organ dealing much of which is under the control of Drake (Darren Shahlavi) a former SAS operative turned crime lord.
As the countdown continues, Deacon must walk the road of vengeance to save his family, and perhaps redeem himself for the sins of his past...
Now I would like to mention that I was very much involved in the production of this movie... I've known Jean-Claude for more than a quarter of a centur, and director Ernie Barbarash for several years and when they and (and producers Kirk Shaw and Henry Luk) asked me to join the project, I jumped aboard as Co-Producer and did what I could to help and bring in a lot of talent both in front and behind the camera. This included bringing aboard both John Salvitti (our fight and stunt choreographer) and the late great Darren Shahlavi, both of whom have been close friends and trusted colleagues since 1990. We also had Bruce Law's Stunts Unlimited and a number of supporting cast and stunt crew.
The film is the third collaboration between Jean-Claude and director Ernie Barbarash, following Assassination Games and Six Bullets. Having worked closely with Ernie through the shoot, I have nothing but the highest respect for him as a film-maker and a human being. He was our captain and steered this ship through some occasionally troubled waters and dealing with a multi-national cast and crew is never the easiest of things, but I never saw him lose his head when many of us were losing ours!
The film scripted by the very talented Joshua James is a dark tale, chronicling the attempts at redemption by a man who knows he's lived a dark and often bad past, but is willing to risk everything when family are involved. Ernie runs with the story and crafts a very strong performance from van Damme - his character runs the full gamut of emotions struggling to redeem himself for the sins of his past, that have seen him destroy friendships, his relationship with his brother and much more. But we know deep down he's a good guy, he wants to do the right thing but too many times the darker aspects of real life and the world he lives in have caused him to make choices that too often didn't take other people into consideration. Barbarash gets a strong performance from JCVD, as we see him struggling with the circumstances around him and the effects of the kidney loss and the morphine he is taking to try and keep going. His character may be tough as nails on the outside, and yes has made decisions that didn't take anyone else into consideration, but he's paid the price emotionally and it shows in his performance. He seems so far gone, that he'll do anything to redeem himself and save the girl.
Action wise, there's probably more action from Jean-Claude in this film than we've seen in a long time, but frustratingly some of his fans seem to forget he's no longer the fresh faced youngster of Bloodsport and Kickboxer, and - in the world of this film - it wouldn't make sense for him to be endlessly throwing jumping kicks and high sidekicks. It's a brutal worldwhich is where John Salvitti's choreography comes into play. Salvitti, long term friend and member of Donnie Yen's action team, is a ring proven fighter in addition to his cinematic outings and his love for MMA and real combat gets let loose on this film. There are a few moments such as the flashback fight where JCVD lets loose with some of his trademark kicks, but as the film progresses and his character has to overcome the limitations caused by the operation, he streamlines and becomes more brutal, with punches, grabs, choke holds (and, yes, there was some real power involved which I can attest to when my own character falls foul of JCVD in the car fight scene).
Canadian actor John Ralston does a lot with the character of George, a man mourning the death of wife and his daughter's situation, who is not only forced to run to his brother for help, but - when things go wrong - finds himself drawn into a world he's never been a part of and forced to take up arms himself. It's handled well - we see the struggle... he doesn't simply become an action hero. Ralston is a solid actor and his performance pushes Jean-Claude's. There's a great sequence between his character and Aki Aleong (or Leonard Gonzales as he's credited for this film) where the two discuss their 'relationship' with Deacon, and Aki reveals that while he knows him from the kidnap and rescue business, most of the time they were on opposite sides. Aleong, who previously worked with van Damme in The Quest, is an incredible 80years old and gives a quixotic turn as a former criminal who has no place in the modern world, where honour amongst thieves is no longer a possibility.
Irish actress Charlotte Peters brings a fragile beauty to the character of Anna, a once good time girl who got in over her head and by her own admission has been forced to do things she isn't proud of. Her character is used as a honey-trap to draw Deacon into the bad guy's plan, but she's also only doing it to survive.
The late Darren Shahlavi who plays the film's charismatic villain Drake was a long time friend of mine - and of Impact - he was at the launch of the magazine with the Double Impact screening in London and had been featured many times. He. carved a name for himself in action movie making with his work on such projects as Tai Chi 2/Tai Chi Boxer, Ip Man 2, Bloodmoon, I Spy and most recently the upcoming Tomorrowland and his final project Kickboxer: Vengeance. I'd known Darren for 25 years, our friendship began as two youngsters with a dream of breaking into martial arts and action movie making and had endured through the years and seen us encourage and support each others' progress. When I introduced him to Ernie for this movie, I knew he'd give his best. And he does... his character could have just been a clichéd bad guy, but Darren gave the character life and made it his own, adding the flamboyance and much more than just a physical threat to the film. Its a memorable turn and we get to see Darren & JCVD face off and battle in two solid physical encounters. The film is rightfully dedicated to Darren's memory.
There's strong turns by the supporting cast which includes Andrew Ng from Man with the Iron Fists playing a priest, VOR's Philippe Joly as Zoltan named after the Hound of Dracula, Cheng Pei-pei's daughter Marsha Yuan, and a very special mention to Brahim Achabbakhe who plays the mysterious Nardo, enforcer for Aki Aleong's character and gets a nice showcase for his skills in the nightclub fight.
As mentioned, the film's fight and stunt choreography were handled by John Salvitti and the action sequences really do deliver. (Spoiler: No... there are not ten minute long kickboxing fights, but that's not what the movie is about!) The action is brutal and bloody, there are moments of flash but Salvitti grounded the fights in realism as per both Ernie and Jean-Claude's thoughts on the character and the style of the movie. While part of me does wish we could have seen Jean-Claude and Darren trading stylish kicks, I don't think it would have worked for the film, they DO trade kicks but they're trying to hurt each other they aren't trying to showcase their form. There is some doubling, as there is in any film, but the action flows and the cast and stunt team took some hits for the film. I got punched, knee'd and choked in what is one hell of a sequence if I say so myself when Van Damme takes a dislike to my character and ends up pulling off a trademark split in a way we've never seen him do it.
The flashback fight between JCVD and Darren's character gives both men a chance to show their kicks. There's a painful fight between JC and Australian MMA fighter Ryan Pine which features some brutal moments. Salvitti also brings in some nice gun-play through the film, including the final assault on the bad guy's mansion which has everyone in on the action. Bruce Law's Stunts Unlimited lead by Norman Law came in to help stage the car chase. Much respect to John and the whole stunt-team on the film, Brahim, Mike Moeller, Temur, Todd Senofonte, Tiger, Little Sifu, Muscles and the rest of the gang for really bringing their A-game.
Pound of Flesh is the strongest of the three collaborations between Barbarash and van Damme, and probably Van Damme's strongest film action and performance wise in the last 10 years or so. It proves once again that with the right director and story, Jean-Claude can deliver as a leading man and that unlike some actors, he isn't afraid to show he's getting older. Yes, some of the fights were trimmed down slightly too much in my opinion (there is some great footage that didn't make it to the final film) but it's a very solid action thriller that hopefully will spark a resurgence in Jean Claude for strong leads rather than just cameos... and hopefully see Barbarash, Salvitti and many more of the cast and crew going on to bigger and better things.
Thanks to JC, Ernie, Henry Luk, Kirk Shaw, JJ and Jacob for having me onboard and trusting some of my casting and crew choices, thanks again to all the cast and crew for going above and beyond, we may have shed blood sweat and tears on this film, but it was worth it. And a big thanks to the late great Darren Shahlvi for being a part of the project, this one's for you Dazza!