Amazon Pilot Review: ‘Jean-Claude Van Johnson’

Amazon Pilot Review: Jean-Claude Van Johnson

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Jean-Claude Van Damme may have missed his calling as a ham. When he was making action hero movies, everyone had to be serious and tough and badass. It turns out he’s even more charming making fun of himself. Fortunately, it’s not too late, as the Amazon original series Jean-Claude Van Johnson taps into his comedy. You got a taste of it too in Welcome to the Jungle where he exaggerates all his own schtick, like the Bloodsport face, but Van Johnson promises an entire series devoted to self-deprecating Van Damme.

The script by Dave Callaham is nostalgic and meta from the very first scene when Van Damme’s voiceover narration plugs Bloodsport and Timecop, razzing some of the other time travel movies that came since. Van Damme’s lavish lifestyle is a spoof of Hollywood extravagance, and there’s some witty commentary on his straight to video contemporaries. I don’t quite get the Nicolas Cage dig since Nicolas Cage never claimed to retire, but I’m always happy to see people talking about Nicolas Cage.

Van Damme decides to go back to work, but not as an actor, as the secret agent Jean-Claude Van Johnson which he’s apparently been all the time under the cover of making martial arts movies. His agent (Phylicia Rashad) is also his handler, so she gets to spoof the state of the entertainment industry, with all the reboots and reimagining, and the actual spy movies of which this show is a spoof. It’s Entourage meets Tropic Thunder.

The movie she puts Van Damme/Johnson on is a gritty, action-packed reboot of Huckleberry Finn which is brilliant enough that I would want to see that movie. The action is directed well by Peer Atencio with slow motion and legitimate choreography, highlighted by goofy slapstick gags which Van Damme plays magnificently. The show is presented widescreen to give it the feel of a real action movie.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson jokes about action movie cliches with utter sincerity, such as the famous cliche of a gang of bad guys attacking the hero one at a time. The unique perspective this show brings is that it’s not making fun of those movies. It’s celebrating them, so they play it like it’s totally reasonable to take turns attacking one hero.

Van Damme plays himself as a lovestruck puppy. He really wants to get back together with his former partner (Kat Foster), with whom he has to work on new missions. This will they/won’t they could go on indefinitely and Foster is convincingly immune to Van Damme’s charms.

The whole show is perfectly deadpan, so it’s never winking or belittling the material. Jean-Claude Van Johnson is committed to making Van Damme awesome again and celebrating all the things that ever made him awesome, and having a lot of fun with him along the way. Van Damme is game, the supporting cast is great, and I am on board for more adventures of Jean-Claude Van Johnson.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson premieres Friday, August 19 on Amazon.

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