Jean-Claude Van Damme is a retired mess in the pilot for Amazon’s Jean-Claude Van Johnson. He’s not “Nicolas Cage retired,” as he tells the hipster waiter at an L.A. pop-up Ramen joint. He’s retired retired. He says the word twice not only to emphasize that he’s no longer acting, but as he soon reveals, because he is actually retired from two careers. Jean-Claude Van Johnson isn’t simply a comedy about an out-of-work actor trying to cope with life after stardom. Instead, this is a series about an out-of-work black-ops badass who had simply been posing as a Hollywood action star.
Fellow fans of ‘80s action movies and Hollywood satire: We may have found heaven. For as much as some of us have enjoyed the mindless, action-packed fun of The Expendables franchise – though the third installment’s domestic box office results hint that the fun may be over – JCVJ is far more creative and clever. That’s not a knock on David Callaham, writer of The Expendables, because he’s also the writer of Jean-Claude Van Johnson. If The Expendables is all-you-can-eat appetizers at T.G.I. Friday’s, JCVJ is filet mignon at The Capital Grille.
Callaham’s story is less about meaningless violence and more about a once-unstoppable assassin coming to terms with his own limitations. The biggest limitation is apparently his inability to remain faithful to Vanessa (Kat Foster), a fellow black ops agent who’s obviously the brains of the operation. In a brief flashback, we learn that the action icon and Vanessa were once madly in love. “He spinning back heel kicked his way into my heart,” she tells the gadget- and makeup-man Luis (Moises Arias) in another flashback, in which Van Damme sports a Timecop mullet. A model’s bare ass in the pilot’s opening scene, however, tells us that he screwed up royally, and now he wants out of retirement so he can make things right with the woman he stood up in paradise.
As we see when Van Damme gets pummeled by a security guard, that will be easier said than done. The concept for JCVJ resembles that of the 2008 film JCVD, which featured Van Damme playing himself in a bank robbery. But the humor here makes this series more appealing. If JCVJ can be consistently funny and nut-punchingly action-packed through an entire season, this would balance out the monotony of Van Damme making Kickboxer sequels until Tong Po finally learns his lesson.
Directed by Peter Atencio (Keanu, Key & Peele), the JCVJ pilot relies more on comedy than fighting scenes, and therein lies the series’ greatest challenge. When Van Damme’s agent/handler Jane (Phylicia Rashad) runs through a list of scripts for the actor’s comeback, the Hollywood satire feels both timely and effective. There’s a reimagining of Anne of Green Gables, a Channing Tatum-led Rikki Tikki Tavi, and an origin story of the restaurant P.F. Chang’s as an action movie, with Tatum also already attached. It’s fitting that they’ve put a playful target on the star of an upcoming Splash remake, because Van Damme’s chosen destination, Bulgaria, has him starring in a violent retelling of Huckleberry Finn, and it feels like a 22 Jump Street post-credits sequence. But can that kind of satire last through eight, 10, or 13 episodes without becoming tiresome?
Or will the tongue-in-cheek references to Van Damme’s actual movies cause the novelty to wear off twice as fast? As Johnson breaks into the drug warehouse in disguise as Filip, the episode offers two particular moments that will appeal to any Van Damme fan. First, he faces off against the real Filip (it’s still Van Damme) for a Double Impact callback, but then the two debate over whether Timecop is better than Looper. Then, as Johnson realizes he dropped his Huck screenplay in the warehouse, he has to fight a gang of guards, with the leader fortunately instructing his men: “One at a time or you’ll run into each other!” Even though it’s an obvious joke, I laughed pretty hard at that line.
The pilot is hilarious and I’m certainly ready for more Jean-Claude Van Johnson, but as with The Expendables I’m worried that the gimmick will run out of gas. However, thinking back to Van Damme’s recent “off-the-rails” interview and his admitted exhaustion with repetition and the same old nonsense, I’m confident that he can make this series work. If anything, he needs this change of pace more than we do.