Review by C.J. Bunce
Jean-Claude Van Damme has always fallen somewhere in the shadows of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both European actors that used their physical attributes to fight for their way to fame, somewhere the fates landed Arnold in the A-list and Jean-Claude in the B-list. And fans of 1980s action movies should be grateful for it. For every Arnold big-budget action blockbuster, Jean-Claude kept us happy shuffling in a few smaller films with something admittedly a bit less but always still fun. And he kept action fans coming back to the movies, and eventually video stores, for more. So why would we want an A-list series from Jean-Claude? That just wouldn’t fit.
It’s not often you come across an idea that knows exactly what it’s supposed to be–not great but good, and providing exactly what it should, even if it leaves viewers hungry for more. That’s where Jean-Claude Van Johnson comes into play, the new Amazon Prime streaming series that gives us a major dose of Jean-Claude meta-style as he portrays himself with the secret persona of being an undercover super-agent. He’s the same Jean-Claude who hasn’t had a hit in years unless you can count his role as villain in the similar vibe of has-been tough guys in Expendables 2. He can poke fun at himself and does so in every other scene of the new six-part half hour series showing exclusively on Amazon Prime.
But is it a limited television series or a full-on movie? Binging the series brings in a show at around three hours, which provides one of the shortest new streaming series you can find. Yet it feels like another Jean-Claude movie. And that’s actually just fine for anyone who regularly turns to Bloodsport or TimeCop or Double Impact or Lionheart for fun.
The best episode ends up being the series pilot that aired last year. Fans who assumed that the rest of the series would feature Jean-Claude playing a new role in a fake film from each episode as he outed the bad guys might be disappointed that the entire season lands Jean-Claude making the goofy action adaptation of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as the movie-in-a-movie Huck. But sticking with one case is what provides the feel for the series as a complete film, only divided into six episodes. But wouldn’t it be fun to see Jean-Claude in an episode of the week format in format like The Saint?
We get to know his former love interest/partner the best, Vanessa, another agent, played by Kat Foster who plays the part straight like Van Damme and together they keep up the chemistry for the entire six episodes. Jean-Claude plays himself, plus two other versions of himself, one a bad guy who is also a Van Damme fan who sounds like Kermit the Frog, another who is a future version of Van Damme (or so he thinks), all a tongue in cheek send up of his dual role in Double Impact. We also get a few surprises–comedian Heather Anne Campbell (Whose Line is It Anyway?) sneaks in an appearance as a script consultant. More of this kind of cameo and maybe some bigger cameos from actors like Dolph Lundgren would have added even more fun to the show. And more stunts, maybe something really over the top like his 2013 Volvo ad.
And big props are owed to composer Joseph Trapanese (Tron: Uprising, Oblivion), who very well may responsible for half the great nostalgia provided in the series. Trapanese taps into a host of action themes that feel like 1980s Mark Isham or Paul Hertzog scores. Some artistry and martial arts film love is evident in the set-ups for the classic close-ups and slow pauses with sudden loud brass or bass cues.
If you’re a fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme this is an easy choice. Jean-Claude Van Johnson is as fun and certainly more cinematic than half of his films. Some scenes are such honest homages to his early films that at several points I wondered how the show might play on the big screen. Watch the six-part series now here at Amazon Prime.