Jean Claude Van Johnson review: The Muscles From Brussels lead the cast of this self-parody in a new six-part series coming to Amazon Prime Video.
Jean Claude Van Johnson review by Andrew Gaudion.
You may have caught sight of the pilot episode of Jean-Claude Van Johnson last year during Amazon Prime’s Originals audience poll. A few original Amazon shows aired a pilot on the streaming service, and his public opinion was enthusiastic enough, that series would be commissioned to a full order. It is the reason why The Tick returned to our screens, and it also why we now have a full series of Jena-Claude Van Johnson. Did Prime members get it right? Have we got a high kicking success or a flop that can barely do the splits? Well, it’s a bit of both.
The show stars Jean-Claude Van Damme playing a fictionalised version of himself, not unlike his excellent post-modern flick JCVD, except this time the concept is pushed to ridiculous extremes. Jean-Clause Van Johnson frames Van Damme’s acting career as a cover for his real job as a secret agent, saving the world all the while shooting cheesy action flicks. Now older and bored with the banality of retirement, Van Damme/Johnson decides it’s time to get out of his funk and head out once more into the espionage world. But, can the muscles from Brussels really still hack it?
This six-episode series has moments of inspired comedic glee and moments which feel limited by both budget and imagination. Things kick off to a great start with a pilot that establishes the concept in a fashion that is just on the right side of ridiculous. The action is relatively grounded and pokes fun at clichés and traditions that you are likely familiar with if you have seen any action movie from the 80’s or 90’s, let alone Van Damme’s own filmography. There is an introspective nature to the early proceedings within this pilot that shares thematic DNA with JCVD, leading to many moments which feel well observed with a slight layer of melancholy which really helps the jokes and concept land.
It is when the show progresses into more and more of a ridiculousness plot which goes form involving drug dealing, to weather manipulation to time-travel and doppelgangers. A lot of laughs are mined from the set-up of the fake movie within the series which sees Van-Damme play Huckleberry Finn in a revisionist action take of Mark Twain’s characters (it also provides one of the best action sequence of the series, as JC takes on goons who are actually trying to kill him, while the director thinks he is simply capturing action gold). It is in the more outlandish aspects that the series ends up falling a bit flat.
Having time-travel and more ridiculous plot developments is very clearly meant to parody the outrageous plots which often drive Van-Damme’s movies back in his heyday, with an annoyingly over-used Timecop gag reoccurring as if to make sure you’re still in on the joke. Yet these moments often tend to drag the series down with jokes which often aren’t very funny, often coming off a little desperate and cheap.
However, there are enough moments within Jean-Claude Van Johnson that make the series worthy of your time, particularly if you are a fan of JC himself. The six-episode running order is a blessing in disguise, as you do get the sense that the gag simply wouldn’t have enough millage for much more, and the series is shot with polished flare by Peter Atencio of Keanu and Key and Peele fame. The moments of self-analysing are also often well observed and well performed by Van Damme, who puts in 110%, relishing the chance to both make fun of himself and to revitalise his career, all the while making some moments of reflection genuinely affecting. The show also has lashing of darkness which helps the proceedings feel dangerous, even as it gets more and more ridiculous. There is also great support from
Jean-Claude Van Johnson may not have quite enough in the tank to sustain itself for its brief six-episode runtime due to what feels like a limited budget and tired sketch comedy bits. But for fans of Van Damme, and particularly JCVD, it does offers an experience that is capable of being very funny as well as suitably action-packed.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson is released on Amazon Prime Video on December 15th 2017