The fictional version of Jean-Claude Van Damme in the Amazon Video series Jean-Claude Van Johnson, played by the actor himself, is damaged in the vague yet profound way of so many action-movie protagonists. At one point, he combs blankly through the mountain of Pop-Tarts boxes in his sterile luxury condo; at another, he melodramatically describes the “hole in his heart” that propelled him into a life of acting and, in this madcap series, a double life as a secret agent with the hysterically obvious “Van Johnson” alias.
Jean-Claude’s talent agency in Jean-Claude Van Johnson doubles as a spy agency which, as dictated by action-genre convention, is less altruistic than it seems. Unsurprisingly, any machinations of espionage are brushed over, as the series is more concerned with humor and homage than coherent plotting—incoherent plotting being its own type of homage, of course. To disguise his operations, Jean-Claude stars in the type of trashy action films that recall the recent real-life output of actors such as Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. It’s easy to imagine these actors top-lining Huck, the action reimagining of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that Jean-Claude uses as a cover here.
The idiocy of Huck appears to reference a gulf between art and commerce in Hollywood, but any investigation of the artistic legacy of action relics like Van Damme is confined to the season’s earliest moments. When we meet Jean-Claude, he’s adrift, years removed from his last mission and still mourning a relationship that ended along with his acting career. He rides a Segway to pick up his newspaper and showers in coconut water, wearing a listless expression the whole time. His is the melancholic existence of a Video On Demand star: The money is there, but the glamour is notably missing.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson takes aim at privileged urban life and the action-star archetype.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson takes aim at privileged urban life and the action-star archetype, and establishes a scathing wit that courses through all of its six episodes. At one point, Jean-Claude eats at a restaurant called Dri Ramen, where a disengaged waiter informs him that the noodles must be dry because, as a “pop-up experience,” the space has no water access; the waiter then errantly refers to Jean-Claude as both Nicolas Cage and Val Kilmer, before asking if the actor has anything new coming straight to DVD.
Its central spy farce, coupled with a tendency toward hyper-specific Hollywood humor, places the series at the intersection of Entourage and Get Smart. Jokes pile up at a breathless pace, targeting an audience fluent in both schlocky action movies and the pages of Variety. Jean-Claude’s agent, Jane (Phylicia Rashad), offers him a number of prospective acting roles, all of them in films with Channing Tatum already attached. A recurring bit invokes the film Looper as a mere retread of Van Damme’s own Timecop. Long before Gunnar (Tim Peper), the vaping goon who directs Huck, screams, “I’m not fucking Greengrass!,” the series proves itself willing to lob jokes over some heads.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson’s cynical insider humor might grow tiresome if not for the show’s earnest affection for action films, which is reflected in Jean-Claude’s spy escapades. When he’s on set, the series pokes fun at Hollywood egos and excess, but when he’s spying, it doggedly adheres to genre logic. In each of the show’s elaborate action scenes, henchmen attack Jean-Claude one at a time—an illogical film trope that Gunnar derides early in the series. Those sequences also tend to end with random, cataclysmic explosions. Van Damme performs splits and roundhouse kicks and neck-snaps that are thoughtfully choreographed and manage to excite despite the sense of irony implied by his overly clichéd manner. As Van Damme’s splits become both more elaborate and impressive, Jean-Claude Van Johnson manages to lampoon the actor’s filmography and the action genre while honoring both.
The overarching parody of the series becomes repetitive when an already implausible plot literally doubles down on the absurd. In a nod to both Timecop and Double Impact, two more Van Dammes appear: one an ambassador from the future, the other a doppelganger from the present, and their presence further crowds an already complicated concept. The entire enterprise is undergirded only by Van Damme’s performance; his athleticism lends itself to physical humor that the actor amplifies with surprising comedic timing. More importantly, his overacted and self-effacing performance suggests an understanding that his films are now viewed largely through a lens of irony, by audiences who find unintended humor in films like Timecop and Double Impact. In Jean-Claude Van Johnson, Van Damme champions a bygone era of action cinema, and joins in on the jokes of the present.