‘Jean-Claude Van Johnson’ Review: A Spinning and Kicking Good Time
Fans of Tropic Thunder will immediately feel a kinship towards Jean-Claude Van Johnson, a spoof of action movies and the bulky stars who lead them. The Amazon series reintroduces us to “the Muscles from Brussels,” Jean-Claude Van Damme, who we soon learn has been using his celebrity as a cover for covert operations that include taking down an international drug ring. Jean-Claude Van Johnson is one of Amazon’s 2016 pilots that was voted on to be made into a series, and its brief six-episode has the beats of the action movies it spoofs. In that way it’s reminiscent of The Tick, another Amazon half-hour series that both lampoons and embraces its genre.
In Jean-Claude Van Johnson, JCVD returns from retirement to star in the movie Huck, playing the titular character in a schlocky Hollywood blockbuster which includes a female Tom Sawyer, a magic paintbrush, and lots of sex and violence. It also includes a character controversially called “N-word Jim” (later replaced by “C-word Jim”), who is connected to JCVD’s ex and fellow agent Vanessa (Kat Foster). In an attempt to work with her again and perhaps regain her affection, JCVD tracks down his old handler, Jane (Phylicia Rashad), to revive his undercover persona and assist in finding out who is manufacturing a new street drug called HK. In doing so, JCVD gets his wish, teaming up with both Vanessa and the unassuming Luis (Moises Arias) — who pose as very competent hair and makeup artists on set — to infiltrate the Bulgarian underground.
At its most basic level, Jean-Claude Van Johnson goes for easy, but nevertheless chuckle-worthy Hollywood satire, from the trailer quotes for Huck (“I pledge allegiance to kicking ass”) and the show’s tagline (“This summer, it’s time to get HUCKED”) to the way its douchbro director alternates between vaping and yelling at his cast and crew. When it comes to JCVD’s covert ops though, things start to move from satire to the fantastical, as we meet a henchman with marble hands, introduce time travel (“he’s a Time Cop!”) as well as the concept of dopplegangers. Naturally, JCVD spins, kicks, and uses splits to help bring down the bad guys, all the while spouting dialogue that’s full of references to his film career (some which work better than others).
But what grounds the series, rather improbably, is a subplot that starts out as jokey, but ends up as a necessary hero arc. As much as Jean-Claude Van Johnson sees JCVD sending up his action star persona, it also touches on something personal. The JCVD we see on screen is fictionalized as an orphan who grew up on some kind of an emu farm before being put into a cold-hearted state home. And while the emu farm itself is funny (because emus), the story takes something of a deeper turn towards the end of the season, as an emotionally beleaguered JCVD learns to love and accept himself first. It’s what makes Jean-Claude Van Johnson something beyond one long SNL spoof; but having said that, the joy of Jean-Claude Van Johnson is how breezy and silly it can be. Still, those quieter moments help balance the show’s glib tone to create a series that both highlights what makes JCVD such a compelling action star and what makes action movies so ridiculous.
The series can easily be binged as a long JCVD movie, one that keeps its focus almost entirely on the star. That’s just fine. As he says late in the series, “When I met you I was nothing. Just a movie star making millions of dollars. But you made me the hero I was flawlessly pretending to be.” Jean-Claude Van Johnson loves its star, and wants us to love him too.
Rating: ★★★★ Good Fun
Jean-Claude Van Johnson premieres Friday, December 15th on Amazon.