Review: In ‘Jean-Claude Van Johnson,’ Van Damme Gives Us the True Hollywood Story

Posted December 14, 2017 3:18 p.m. EST

Aging male movie stars have been taking roles that play off their macho personas for a long time now — Clark Gable in “The Misfits,” John Wayne in “True Grit,” Sylvester Stallone in just about everything.

It’s not always clear how aware the actors are that they’re playing versions of themselves. In the new Amazon series “Jean-Claude Van Johnson,” it’s not a question — Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Jean-Claude Van Damme, a former action star on the downside of a career that peaked more than 20 years ago.

The question is whether Van Damme is so in on the joke that he forgets it’s supposed to be a joke. Although occasionally funny, “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” sits in an odd no man’s land between clever self-parody and aggrieved vanity project. Even as the show is sending up Van Damme’s signature balletic splits and his troubled personal life, the tone wobbles — you’re not sure whether you’re supposed to be laughing along with him or giving him a shoulder to cry on.

The show’s creator, Dave Callaham, has worked on an industrial version of this sort of thing, writing the screenplay for “The Expendables 2,” in which Van Damme appeared. In “Van Johnson,” the joke is that the fictional Jean-Claude’s movie career was a cover for his real career as a deadly secret agent. Retired and bored, he wheel-kicks his way back into both jobs in order to pursue a former love.

Van Damme, Callaham and Peter Atencio, who directed all six episodes, have a lot of fun with that premise. Jean-Claude’s comeback vehicle is a low-budget “action adaptation” of “Huckleberry Finn,” shot in Bulgaria, an echo of the long stretch of Van Damme’s career when he couldn’t get work in Hollywood. There are constant references, many made by Jean-Claude himself, to past Van Damme opuses like “Timecop,” “Double Impact” and “Bloodsport.”

There’s also a seam of weepy nostalgia and sentimentality, as Jean-Claude recalls a (fictional) childhood as an orphan on an emu farm and seeks redemption from his younger self. This is certainly intentional — the show is satirizing Van Damme’s well-promoted sensitive side, a move he already made in the 2008 film “JCVD” — but it’s not particularly funny, and it makes the show drag.

As far as Van Damme and Callaham are willing to go in deconstructing the star’s career to date, you get the feeling they’re not willing, or able, to go all the way — the kicks don’t land full force. When Jean-Claude says, “No one has looked for me here for 20 years” and the camera pans to a Blockbuster sign, it’s a good joke, but who’s it on, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Blockbuster? As it is, it plays as a sad comment on a movie business that no longer has room for midbudget martial-arts filler.

“Jean-Claude Van Johnson” is fine, if ultimately unfulfilling, as a three-hour binge, and Van Damme, who turned 57 in October, is still in fighting shape. It’s in a subgenre where the quality is rising, though, with Keanu Reeves’ kabuki version of himself in the “John Wick” movies and Christopher Meloni’s genius self-parody in Syfy’s “Happy!” Van Damme needs to kick a little higher.