In a show about undercover black ops and secrets, it’s perhaps fitting that Jean-Claude Van Johnson makes full use of its star’s own secret weapon: Comedy.
Van Damme is funny, and not just in a “haha let’s laugh at this movie ironically” sort of way. Ever since Double Impact, JCVD has shown a proclivity for delivering punchlines just as well as punches. He can ham it up with broad comedy or, as is quite expertly showcased in this pilot episode of Jean-Claude Van Johnson, deliver much more subtle laughs depending on what the moment calls for. One of most disappointing things about the man’s career is that so few directors are either cognizant of this talent or willing to take advantage of it.
Peter Atencio is very aware and more than willing. You may not know his name, but there’s a good chance you know his work. Atencio was one of the crucial driving forces behind Key & Peele, directing every episode of the show’s five seasons. And while it feels like Key & Peele left us too soon, Atencio proves he’s got plenty of tricks left up his sleeves upon delivering one of the best television pilots ever made.
Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as Jean-Claude Van Damme, a weary and worn-out former action star who used to be one of the world’s deadliest covert agents. Did you always wonder why Van Damme used to act on some really crappy movies regardless of the script or overall quality? Well, it’s because those films were really cover for his black ops missions. The same goes for many of his action cinema contemporaries as well. Those days are long gone now, both in front of the camera and behind enemy lines. Until, that is, he has a chance encounter with Vanessa (Kat Foster), the woman who once stole his heart and fed him mission intel.
Determined to win back the love of his life, while also proving he’s still got it as an action star and secret agent, Van Damme heads to Bulgaria to film an action-reimagining of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (written by Max Landis, natch) and take down an illegal narcotics operation. Things go about as well as you’d expect for an actor and operative who’s been out of the game for a few years and, of course, comedy ensues. If there’s a clear companion to Jean-Claude Van Johnson, it’s Van Damme’s 2008 film JCVD, which cleverly mixed meta-humor and dramatic pathos to surprising results. This episode leans heavier on comedy than JCVD, but the intent seems surprisingly similar.
That said, a huge part of what makes Jean-Claude Van Johnson work is that while the show itself takes itself quite seriously, everyone participating knows precisely how silly this all is. The show manages to flit from wild bits of absurdity (all the plumbing in Van Damme’s house uses coconut water) to more subtle jokes (the bit where he picks out breakfast is such a tiny thing but it gets a laugh from me every time) to moments of genuine pathos without ever missing a beat. Atencio, working from a script by show creator Dave Callaham, in the space of just 30 minutes manages to deliver something that functions as a simultaneous tribute to and send-up of Van Damme’s entire career. It has everything: ridiculous hair, pithy one-liners, the perfect reference to his proclivity for playing twins and the most exciting showcase of JCVD’s signature fight moves in years. More of this show is a necessity, but it’d also be pretty amazing to see what Atencio and Van Damme could deliver in an actual film.
Of course, none of this would work in the slightest if Van Damme wasn’t firing on all cylinders, and thankfully that’s what we get. Van Damme gives it everything he’s got here, leaving no part of his career unskewered while also allowing the weariness the years have layered on to provide for moments of genuine emotion and vulnerability. He’s no stranger to letting his life be reflected in his work and that’s certainly the case here. Very few actors of his kind seem willing or able to allow for this kind of vulnerability, but Van Damme truly leans into it here whether for a laugh or otherwise.
Oh, and before it goes unmentioned, Atencio should be praised for his inspired casting of Phylicia Rashad as the director of the nameless agency that sends 80s action stars on missions. Rashad is a wonderful actress and her talents both dramatically and comedically are criminally underused. Her willingness to dive head first into a role like this is such a treat to behold, especially when she spouts off dirty words that would have inspired no end of stern looks from Claire Huxtable.
It’s hard to say how mainstream audiences will take to this, however. It’s not that the comedy feels so specific that the jokes won’t land (though there are plenty of great laughs for JCVD aficionados). Will broader audiences dig it? One can only hope. Jean-Claude Van Johnson is exceptionally well-made, smartly written and blisteringly funny. If there is justice in this world, we’ll get at least one full season.
Van Dammage Report Statistics For Jean-Claude Van Johnson 1.1 — “Pilot”:
Number of splits: 1.5
Number of split kicks: 1
Reason for being European: He’s Jean-Claude Van Damme, native of Brussels, Belgium.
Best line: A tie between “No one is going to die, except for all the people I’m going to kill” and “Or maybe you’ve seen Timecop, which is like Looper, starring Bruce Willis, but like … a million times better.”
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Replicant | Desert Heat | Legionnaire | Knock Off | Double Team | Maximum Risk | The Quest | Sudden Death | Street Fighter | Timecop | Hard Target | Nowhere to Run | Universal Soldier | Double Impact |Death Warrant | Lionheart | Kickboxer | Cyborg | Bloodsport