A stunning, enrapturing film, a crowning work by one of the American cinema’s most essential artists.
Over the past few years, Jean-Claude Van Damme has packaged himself as the James Franco of the action world, with the high-kicking, legs-splitting superstar conceptualizing his star image across various projects (sometimes by playing himself). The 2008 action-drama, “JCVD,” offered an especially lingering curiosity about what Jean-Claude Van Damme means, both to himself and to the world that previously saw him as an action-superstar with few contemporaries. Van Damme limply carries that self-reflexive interest into his latest endeavor, Amazon’s six-episode series “Jean-Claude Van Johnson,” where he becomes an action-comedy hero with a script that's inspired but not interesting.
The series is a curious connection between two previous action storytellers: director Peter Atencio previously did “Keanu,” which featured Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key as two action buffs caught up in a real world of bad guys and death, and the series is created by Dave Callaham, who perhaps most famously helped kick off “The Expendables” trilogy as a reflexive all-star game that got Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham and others in the same action sequences. But both of those enterprises ran out of genre gas in their respective lengths, something that proves to be the case with this essentially three-hour movie, each episode directed by Atencio.
“Jean-Claude Van Johnson” has a premise with the potential for fruitful action, comedy, and self-reflexive material. It takes place in a world where Jean-Claude Van Damme did make “Timecop” and other gems, became a superstar, and now struggles with being confused for Nicolas Cage. But the twist is that he’s also a black ops agent, assigned by his talent agent (Phylicia Rashad) to various international missions, her agency like an MI6 in James Bond-speak. Van Damme decides to take himself out of retirement in both senses to rekindle his relationship with an old flame named Vanessa (Kat Foster), who also works in black ops but as a hairdresser on set.
The mission of season one of “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” takes the two to Bulgaria, where Van Damme has to shoot a goofy action adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huck Finn while stopping a deadly drug from going across Europe. In a bit of action-comedy contrivance that doesn’t full come together logically, Van Damme is Van Damme by day, but Van Johnson by night when sabotaging a drug factory or street racing, the latter happening in the second episode. The two identities become intertwined later on, like with a life-or-death Van Johnson fight happening on a Van Damme film set, but it proves to be a rare dynamic moment for an action-comedy that too often runs flat.
There are callbacks to Van Damme’s other films in the stories, like “Double Impact” or “Timecop” ("Timecop" is compared to Rian Johnson's "Looper" roughly a thousand times) as if Van Damme himself is living in a type of loop. But to put it in perspective of his career, there’s nothing in this series that is as brilliantly campy as “Double Team,” or “Sudden Impact,” etc, showing the limits of the series' sense of humor. The show is fine being plainly silly but it’s best being outrageous, such as a doomsday device to control the weather or a doppelgänger that Van Damme plays like Kyle MacLachlan did Dougie in “Twin Peaks: The Return.”
It doesn’t particularly help that a viewer must bring a fair amount to the table in order to see what the series is winking at. Aside from appreciating the Van Damme references, you have to see much more than just a worn down face when you look at Van Damme, who plays a mopey version of his star persona (riding his Segway alone, cleaning his own statue) but struggles to make the case that he’s a strong comedic performer or even a curious shell of a real-life superstar. The joke of all of this being done by Van Damme lacks the desired charm, even with asides about his career (“I’m not like Nicolas Cage retired”) or references to how the “Muscles from Brussels” can’t do the splits like he used to. If you’re not already sharing Van Damme's lament that he isn’t more relevant in 2017, “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” is not the best place to start.
When it comes to offering mere genre thrills, the action and comedy to “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” becomes perhaps more grating than it should be as the series is never as clever as it thinks it is. The bits where Van Damme does to get to kick his way back into choreographed fighting nostalgia are dull visually, hardly making for bits of simple spectacle. And the comedy only reaches for low-hanging satire fruit, such as imbecile directors, cheesy film projects (“Huck”), or even tres chic LA restaurants that serve their ramen as if it came straight from the package.
“Jean-Claude Van Johnson” has a spark of an idea but not the vital sense of wit, or bit of world-building, to tie its reality and fantastical altogether. Though clearly inspired, the overlapping cartoonish approach to this promising "return" proves to come from creativity that is clearly limited, instead of liberated.
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