Jean-Claude Van Johnson Whiffs on Hollywood Satire

Photo: Amazon Studios

You might have heard that onetime kickboxing action superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme is starring in a new Amazon series, in which he plays a version of himself who is an actual secret agent in addition to sometimes playing one. That description is true, as far as it goes. But it’s not exact enough. Jean-Claude Van Damme is in the series Jean-Claude Van Johnson, and he’s good in it. But the true star of this series is Van Damme’s face. It’s magnificent, and you can tell that creator Dave Callaham and director Peter Atencio know it magnificent, too, because they never pass up an opportunity to examine it in close-up. You just don’t see faces like this anymore, at least not in English language cinema: 57-year-old faces that look 57, with eye bags and crags and pockmarks that create a rumpled frame for an actor’s seen-it-all eyes. I have no idea whether Van Damme has never had work done, or if he had some once but the years defeated it anyway. Either way, it doesn’t matter. He has a great face and he uses it well, mainly by doing as little with it as possible — just sort of looking around and listening. I could turn the sound off and just stare at it.

Seemingly inspired by the 2008 cult film JCVD, which attempted a similar blur of suspense and satire, Jean-Claude Van Johnson is just okay most of the time, occasionally verging on a mess. Jean-Claude has been retired from the black-ops trade for a couple of years, but when he hears that his ex-lover Vanessa (Kat Foster) is doing a mission in Bulgaria, he pressures his agent and secret espionage handler Jane (Phylicia Rashad) to find a project there that he can star in. He gets drawn into a convoluted mystery that allows him to sneak into bad guys’ hideouts and kick them in the face, when he’s not busy arguing with the director of the movie, a sci-fi fantasy gloss on Mark Twain starring Jean-Claude as a kickboxing Huckleberry Finn. (It is funnier to read about than it is to watch.) There are many inspired images and moments and performance bits, including Van Damme doing a scared-nerd voice that sounds like the weirdest, creepiest Muppet you never met, but they don’t add up the way you want them to. That’s because the series keeps whiffing on the Hollywood satire, which is too broad and obvious, and getting a little too wrapped up in the Van Damme character’s missions, which involve drug dealers and top-secret microchips and something else that I won’t divulge here because it’s actually pretty nifty.

If it weren’t for Jean-Claude Van Damme, I doubt it would have gotten made, and that if had gotten made, everyone involved might’ve insisted on rewrites to make it stand on its own rather than constantly leaning on its star’s ragged anti-charisma. It’s frustrating how Callaham and Atencio (who helmed Key & Peele with cinematic panache, and shoots in glossy action-flick widescreen here) spend most of the season hovering somewhere between close and no cigar. When the series goes for intensity or pathos, it often overshoots.

Still, Van Damme’s alternately bemused and haunting visage makes it worth a look. He was never acclaimed for his acting, and nothing that he does here will prompt a reevaluation of that, but he was always a terrific physical performer who was unafraid to be goofy. If what’s onscreen is any indication, he’s held onto a startling percentage of his chops for a guy pushing 60. But age has leached most of the vanity out of him. What remains is an exhausted nonchalance occasionally enlivened by neediness, horniness, and flashes of regret. It’s a pleasant shrug of a performance, anchored to the face of an old philosopher who has given up trying to warn society of its impending ruination and would prefer to be left alone with his espresso and his newspaper. He understands how to be for the camera, specifically that you can get incredible screen mileage out of seeming like you don’t particularly care whether anyone’s looking at you. If there were a coffee-table book full of black-and-white portraits of Van Damme doing ordinary things like folding laundry or walking his dog, I would buy it.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson Whiffs on Hollywood Satire