'Jean-Claude Van Johnson': TV Review

Great idea, great pilot, disappointing series.
12/15/2017

Amazon's Jean-Claude Van Damme comedy fails to maintain the creative charge of its unexpectedly clever pilot.

Given its precariously high concept, delivering Jean-Claude Van Johnson as a five-minute comedy short would have been a respectable achievement.

Pulling off Jean-Claude Van Johnson as a half-hour pilot would have been impressive.

And executing Jean-Claude Van Johnson as a fully realized, ongoing TV series would have been nearly miraculous.

Unfortunately, as unexpectedly satisfying as its original pilot was, let's just say that Jean-Claude Van Johnson is not a series miracle for Amazon.

Created by Dave Callaham, the premise of the show remains enticing. Van Damme plays himself as a washed-up action star whose formerly successful career was built around his main job as an undercover agent for a private security firm or government-adjacent mercenary group of some sort. Feeling adrift in his acting career and yearning to reconnect with the girl/agent who got away (Kat Foster), Van Damme tells his old boss (Phylicia Rashad) that he's ready to get back into the game, signing on for a low-budget, Bulgaria-shot action adaptation of Huckleberry Finn that doubles as an opportunity to bring down a drug cabal.

The pilot premiered back in August 2016, part of the same Amazon pilot season that also included The Tick and I Love Dick. Those two half-hours were ordered to series at the same time as Jean-Claude Van Johnson and premiered earlier and with more episodes, reflecting not necessarily the relative merits of the pilots, but more the ease of turning the other two into ongoing shows.

The Jean-Claude Van Johnson pilot remains, even on rewatch, a loopy treat. A lot of Callaham's Hollywood satirizing is easy and all-purpose — hipster pop-up restaurants, silly movie pitches — but he has a good sense of Van Damme's career arc and his celebrity appeal. Van Damme has a welcome willingness to mock the nature of his own fame and the character's stone-faced moroseness hits a note the limited thespian handles reasonably well. Best of all, director Peter Atencio (Keanu) knows how to deliver high-gloss action scenes that are both parody and abnormally proficient in their own right. The pilot worked for me totally, but also left me wondering if there was anywhere the story and its style could possible go from there.

The answer, sadly, is "not really."

Jean-Claude Van Johnson is only six half-hour episodes long and that includes the pilot, so the show deserves credit for, if nothing else, overextending itself only slightly. The finale captures some of the freshness of the pilot, but mostly the middle four episodes are sluggish and sparked only by rare bursts of creativity usually directorial inspiration.

The biggest problem is simply that Jean-Claude Van Johnson has very little to say and very little story to tell after the pilot. There are questions about how a past-his-peak icon fits into both modern action cinema and modern geopolitics, but the series isn't interested in engaging with that, nor with how the Van Damme persona make him more or less convincing as a real-world hero. I actually think this is rich material. Van Damme's peers include Arnold Schwarzenegger, who achieved astounding actual political clout, and Steven Seagal, whose career in actual law enforcement was the subject of a straight-faced reality series. Why was Schwarzenegger suited to be the governor of California, Seagal suited to be a small-town lawman, but Van Damme's chosen milieu was clandestine espionage? I want to know!

Instead, there's a fabricated backstory about Van Damme's past as an orphan woven through a perfunctory plotline involving a designer drug, a perfunctory Euro villain and perfunctory double-crosses. The moviemaking satire is a little better, but like the drug story, it fizzles out without serving a worthwhile purpose. Rashad has almost nothing to do, joined in general waste by Moises Arias as weapons expert Luis, though both are better utilized than Richard Schiff as a character whose last name might as well be "Paycheck." Foster and Bar Paly, playing Van Damme's enticing co-star, have a little more personality and a few more action opportunities, but limited room for characterization.

The actor with the most opportunities is, of course, Van Damme, and playing at least three somewhat different characters, I'm sure Jean-Claude Van Johnson showcases the full range of his talent. There's a "bear playing the violin" aspect to critiquing what he's doing — as in "You're so impressed he's doing it, you can't be bothered to worry if he's doing it well." For 30 minutes (or even 90 in the case of 2008's similar JCVD), you can enjoy the novelty of an unshaven Jean-Claude brooding and playing introspective before you realize just how little depth there is to it. There's a brief window of mirth to watching him twitch and adopt a strange voice as a character who may be a JCVD doppelgänger, because Jean-Claude Van Damme lurching like Igor and doing a Kermit the Frog voice is unexpected. It's not the same as giving a good performance. Throughout, everything Van Damme does can be summed up as "Better than you expect from Jean-Claude Van Damme, worse than you'd expect from a different actor whose skill set doesn't peak with doing the splits spectacularly."

Directing all six installments, Atencio maintains high production values, and when there's an action sequence opportunity — a fight-to-the-death in front of the Huck green screens or some of the climactic battles in the finale — he makes the most of it. It feels like more of a writing problem that whole episodes go by without anything amusing or memorable transpiring.

If the Jean-Claude Van Johnson pilot exceeded low expectations and the series failed for me because the pilot raised my overall expectations, maybe now I've lowered audience expectations enough that the series can succeed for them. That's a precarious way to watch TV.

Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kat Foster, Moises Arias, Phylicia Rashad, Richard Schiff, Bar Paly
Creator: Dave Callaham
Director: Peter Atencio
Premieres: Friday (Amazon)

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