Like a supermodel launching a make-up line or an athlete turning coach, playing a parody version of yourself is one way for past-their-prime movie stars to keep the cheques coming. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s TV roles so far have exclusively been as him – on Friends in 1996, on Las Vegas in 2004, on Robot Chicken in 2009 and in double denim and a mullet wig for Coors Light since 2012. Now he’s playing himself in Amazon comedy pilot Jean-Claude Van Johnson, an action-movie spoof from The Expendables writer Dave Callaham.
More properly, he plays a fictionalised Jean-Claude Van Damme, not only a former action movie star but also a former undercover operative, part of a Hollywood network that uses movie-making as a front for covert black ops. (Should Amazon pick it up to series, one thing firmly in its favour is the potential for cameos from some of Van Damme’s real-world colleagues.)
The half-hour pilot sees the action star, codename: Johnson, come out of retirement and return to the world of international ass-kicking, all in pursuit of lost love and former colleague Vanessa (Kat Foster).
The romance plot is thin gruel and entirely beside the point. If you’re here, it’s for spinning heel kicks and jokes about Timecop. Jean-Claude Van Johnson has both, but ask yourself if that’s enough to fill a whole series. Your 80s action-loving heart will want to say yes, but your 2016 head, stuffed with an ever-growing list of excellent TV you already don’t have enough time to watch, will likely tell you no.
It’s not that the pilot doesn’t entertain. Key And Peele’s Peter Atencio does a genuinely great job directing Van Damme’s action scenes, which look so good they barely count as spoofs. A rain-soaked sai-fight and henchmen pile-on remind you why the star made it in movies in the first place.
With the best will in the world, his delivery or comic timing wasn’t what got him there. Sensibly, Atucio and Callaham make the best of that by having JCVD play it straight. The episode’s opening scenes, set to mournful French ballad Ne Me Quitte Pas, create a subdued, laconic character that use Van Damme’s acting ability to best effect. He cuts a familiarly sad comedy figure there: the lonely washed-up movie star adrift in a luxury mansion.
The past-it training montage later on falls flatter. As does some of the pilot’s broader satire on LA culture, which feels predictable at best. That stuff—plumbed-in coconut water, vaping, monogrammed Segways and ‘dry ramen’ pop-up experience bars—is simply being done with more sting elsewhere. Seek out BoJack Horseman or Episodes to name just two.
Better are the swipes at Hollywood’s myopic interest in ‘reimagining’ existing properties, none more so than one muscled-up take on an American lit classic I won’t spoil here.
The intermittently amusing script has moments of absurdity (a Belgian emu farm) and juvenility (a guy gets punched hard in the balls). Overall though, it’s been shaped to trade on ironic cult-appeal. That comfortably earns it half an hour of your time. The quality of its great-looking action scenes might even get it as far as a feature-length special. But a whole series? This fun send-up sadly doesn’t feel as though it has the stamina.
The Jean-Claude Van Damme pilot is available to Amazon Prime subscribers now. Watch it and vote at Amazon.co.uk/pilotseason.