Jean-Claude Van Johnson Review: Action Stars And Off-Screen Toughness

As action comedy thriller Jean-Claude Van Johnson arrives on Amazon Prime Video, Matt looks at the history of action movie star satire...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

In the new Amazon series Jean-Claude Van Johnson, action star Jean-Claude Van Damme attempts to relaunch his career by playing a fictionalized version of himself. In the show, Jean-Claude goes to Bulgaria to star in a movie which has been set-up to allow him to undertake covert missions for the agency as his alter-ego name Jean-Claude Van Johnson.

This might all seem a bit familiar, for a couple of reasons. Of course, it’s not the first time that hyper-flexible jaw-punter Van Damme has relaunched his career by playing a fictionalized version of himself. 2008’s excellent JCVD, where he plays a down-on-his-luck version of himself who gets caught up in a bank heist, is perhaps the famous example of the ever-splitsing Belgian playing himself. In The Expendables 2 Jean-Claude Van Damme plays villainous heart-stabber Jean Vilain, which is not explicitly a version of himself but does, in its own, er, subtle way, trade on his real life identity.

You might find his appearances in Coors beer advertisements and a reality television series less enjoyable from a “kicking bastards right in the chops” perspective, but both gave JCVD a profile boost.

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Secondarily, though, John-Claude Van Johnson is also familiar in its representation of action stars. It draws from the way action stars try to blur the line between their movie roles and their off screen lives.

Let’s start with Steven Seagal, who appears to believe himself the human equivalent to one of the penguins from Madagascar. Seagal is legitimate Aikido blackbelt and it was his off-screen credibility that distinguished him as an action star to be reckoned with in his heyday. Yet, Seagal’s relationship with reality has always raised questions.

Can we really trust that his recently adopted New Orleans drawl isn’t an affectation adopted to sell his blues album? More fantastically, Seagal has claimed to have done work with the CIA. His ex-wife insists he’s made it up, and you’d think she might be onto something because it sounds like the action movie star version of a panicked job interview response: “I have so much experience with that program. I actually used to teach people how to use it, but it’s not on my CV because it was top secret because they were people from… the CIA?”.

Sylvester Stallone, meanwhile, has always insisted that the cast of the Rocky films pummel each other senseless in the name of creating real fight scenes, which is something to talk up in the press when promoting the films and makes Stallone look a more convincing tough guy. Stallone was famously hospitalised by Dolph Lundgren during the making of the terrifc Rocky IV. Arnold Schwarznegger might not be a fighter, but his ruthless appearance in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron should dissuade anyone from wanting to cross him in the real world.

Chuck Norris is a renowned Karate champion and his off-screen toughness is unquestionable. But even the master of the slow motion jumping spin kick (during the average Norris movie jumping spin kick you can make a cup of tea and some toast in the time between take off and henchman death) may have found his relationship with reality frayed. Here’s a quote from Norris’ autobiography:

“We’ve had an emergency telephone call Mr. Norris. Your wife is in the hospital; she’s going into preterm labor.”

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“What? That can’t be! Gina is only twenty-three weeks along; she is nowhere near the thirty-eight weeks of a full term pregnancy!”

What? But martial arts and movie star Chuck Norris, the manner in which you have recounted this conversation is strange; it in no way resembles the way that actual human beings interact with each other. How can this be?

This is common even outside of the thick-with-Lynx locker room of the chiselled action stars. It’s incredible that stunt performers even exist given that every actor in any movie ever does all of their own stunts. On screen authenticity seems to be important to everyone, whether it’s authentic or not.

The off-screen movie tough guy schtick is perfectly sent up in the Ross Kemp episode of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras, where Ultimate Force star Kemp is quick to talk up his fighting abilities but quicker to back down in the face of danger. It’s not dissimilar to a story Sylvester Stallone tells about Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Here’s Stallone’s account of a confrontation between the two:

“But I remember once, at my home in Miami, I believe it was in ’96 or ’97, Van Damme was there with Seagal, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Shaquille O’Neal, Don Johnson and Madonna… it was a heck of a party. Van Damme was tired of Seagal saying he could kick his ass and went right up to him and offered him the chance to step outside so he could wipe the floor with him, or should I say wipe the backyard with him. Seagal made some excuse and left. His destination was some Ocean Drive nightclub in Miami. Van Damme, who was completely berserk, tracked him down and again offered him a fight, and again Seagal pulled a Houdini. Who would win? I have to say I believe Van Damme was just too strong and Seagal wanted no part of it.”

Is it true? I don’t know. But it might be and it’s funny.

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With the pitch of Jean-Claude Van Johnson barely detached from some of Seagal’s real life claims, what might seem like a strange and fantastical pitch suddenly seems odd for having taken so long to materialize.

“When I met you I was nothing. Just a movie star making millions of dollars.”

First and foremost, Jean-Claude Van Johnson is a comedy. It’s a damned funny one.

It can seem a bit scattershot at in the first two episodes because it’s trying to do a lot of things. Once they’re all established, though, it works. It’s satirising action movies, it’s being an action movie, it’s a silly comedy and it’s a weird arthouse movie. And in being all of those things, it probably won’t land with some viewers. In the spirit for trying to keep things spoiler free, if you’re unsure I’d advise you to watch up until you meet Phillip. I think Phillip is great, but by the time you get to him you should know if you’re in or you’re out.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson really does get quite odd, but it’s satirising action movie culture and features the star of TimeCop, a film that’s as mad as a pack of drunk corgis, so that’s reasonable. Van Damme has been in some really weird films. The best thing he’s done in years, maybe ever, is the recent Universal Soldier sequel Day Of Reckoning and it’s delightfully off its rocker. And have you seen Cyborg? I tried to write this article with Cyborg playing in the background and I woke up ninety minutes later in a confused daze, shirtless, shiny and draped in HDMI cables. I had to reconnect every device in my flat.

TimeCop is a key component of Jean-Claude Van Johnson. While it riffs on other action films by elevating their quirks or reapplying them in a modern setting, the really odd stuff (we’ll avoid specifics here out of spoiler consideration) feels inspired by Van Damme’s 1995 time travel hit. And no matter how strange Jean-Claude Van Johnson gets in the name of silliness, there’s not a single element of TimeCop that isn’t at least as weird. Within the first half an hour of TimeCop we’ve seen a mulleted Van Damme plummet out of a skyscraper and land in the future, watched him foil a rollerblading purse snatcher and witnessed one of sweetest, excuse me, sweatiest love scenes in cinema history. All of this before the electric-kitchen underpants splits sequence. TimeCop is great.

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It’s not reasonable to expect Jean-Claude Van Johnson to match TimeCop for madness, but in its finest moments it operates on a similar level of absurdity to great comedic effect.

Sure, the action sequences aren’t able to match the fights from Kickboxer or Bloodsport. But a fight on the set of fictional Huckleberry Finn movie they’re making in Bulgaria is incredibly innovative and ends up being the highlight of the entire series. Fight sequences are tough, particularly if you’re short on time to make them, but because Jean-Claude Van Johnson is able to shift tones, between the serious and the silly, it’s able to mix things up. So if a fight sequence isn’t up to Van Damme’s best, you can expect a decent joke to pop up at some point that will make it entertaining in its own way.

In a recent episode of the Nerdist podcast, host Chris Hardwick and guest Seth Rogen discuss spoofs, and agree that in order to make a good spoof you have to have a real love of the material you’re spoofing. While I wouldn’t describe it as a full on spoof (maybe the Fast/Furious sequence), that’s something you can certainly read in Jean-Claude Van Johnson. The details are right. That’s why the training montage towards the end of the season isn’t just funny, it’s also a legitimately brilliant training montage. The sort of thing you’ll love if you love Rocky IV, the king of training montages. And imagine not loving Rocky IV.

The fictional Van Damme has a reverence for Van Damme movies (and being a Van Damme fan means he’s welcome at the Den of Geek Christmas party). It’s a brilliant running joke, well wrung for laughs, but also one that bleeds heavily into the rest of the show, like it had just been machine gunned by a furious, greased-up Van Damme on a revenge mission. For example, we get a helicopter sequence that includes a reference to Van Damme’s Stretch Armstrongesque propensity towards splitting and, by my reading, an allusion towards Sudden Death.

Van Damme turns out to be an astute comedy performer. He can play straight or silly and is well up to physical comedy. He does owe a debt of gratitude to the writing team (creator Dave Callaham along with Kevin Costello, Wes Tooke, Ashley Wigfield and Vinnie Wilhelm). Their scripts are incredibly sharp and packed full of giggle-inducing dialogue exchanges (Van Damme is also blessed with a fantastic cast of co-stars to exchange with) that are so snappy and funny. Series director Peter Atencio is due credit, too, for delivering a show that’s so incredibly well balanced.

The miniseries format (the show runs for six episodes, including the previously released pilot) feels well judged. It’s been made with such care and having to produce a lot of episodes would put a massive amount of pressure on the concept. It’s pretty, thoughtful, funny and absurd. It works at everything it tries. It’s a good satire, it’s a funny comedy and it’s an enjoyable action thriller.

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And you know what? I’m tough enough offline that I’d be willing to say that to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s face.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson series one arrives on Amazon Prime Video on Friday the 15th of December.