Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself in Jean-Claude Van Johnson, Amazon’s new action comedy series. That premise alone might immediately grab your attention, or it might turn you off, but there’s a twist to the self-aware show: this version of Can Damme doesn’t just ponder his existence or make insider jokes about Hollywood; he’s also a hit man in his spare time.
We catch up with Johnson (his code name), as Van Damme’s career has reached a dead end. He’s washed-up, can’t remember his lines and even the style of fighting has changed from his unrealistic one-man-at-a-time duels to full-on brawls. Splits are out. And not just because he can’t do them anymore.
This is familiar ground to tread, arriving on the heels of shows such as Episodes, starring Matt LeBlanc as Matt Le Blanc. Fortunately, Van Damme is adept at sending his persona up, keeping up a gruff, deadpan expression – he’s a natural straight man, a fish out of water in a time where ramen is served dry and restaurants have become “pop-up experiences”.
Jokes about Nic Cage and Bruce Willis are all present and correct, not to mention a boringly familiar romantic subplot involving Kat Foster’s rival agent (his agent, played by Phylicia Rashad, is the real female star of the show). While the digs at hipsters can sometimes feel forced, it’s the action that gives Jean-Claude Van Johnson a unique personality, especially when compared to programmes such as Curb Your Enthusiasm or Hoff the Record. The martial arts sequences are genuinely impressive, with Key and Peele director Peter Atencio capturing the ageing actor at his agile best. Car chases, shootouts, round house kicks and more are all deployed in abundance, with no violence spared in ramping up the action – even as the people recording on set can’t tell what’s a stunt and what’s actually a fresh corpse.
But all that adrenaline wears off any time JCVJ stands still. It’s not because Van Damme is bad – when playing Felipe (a weedy, cartoonish alternative to his usual personality), he’s remarkably versatile – but because the show also wants us to buy into Van Damme as a serious character. Yearning for redemption and relevance, his journey is far too po-faced to fit in with the self-aware silliness.
And so Atencio jumps between two tones: on the one hand, a wilfully stupid spectacle of a Huckleberry Finn adaptation that turns it into a gritty muscle fest; and, on the other, the poignant story of a faded star wanting to be famous again. A one-joke sketch can be extended to a fun, full-length series if stretched correctly (see Episodes and Huff the Record), but with no clear focus, JCVJ reach is disappointingly wide of the mark. It’s saying something when a show that features Van Damme driving a car around a warehouse blindfolded fails to be entertaining – not to mention a bonkers TimeCop-style scene, which features JCVD playing himself multiple times simultaneously. The slapstick and satire shines, only to be snuffed out by a backstory involving his tragic upbringing in an orphanage. A subplot about a weather-controlling device, meanwhile, could have been ripped from a entirely different TV show.
On the basis of this, Jean-Claude Van Damme has undoubtedly still got it. What a shame, then, that this fails to do justice to the man’s obvious talent and apparent sense of humour. Van Damme is amazing, and amazingly up for it; Jean-Claude Van Johnson just needs to decide what “it” is.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.