The full season of Jean-Claude Van Johnson feels like something of a miracle.
After watching the pilot (full review here) I had full confidence that Jean-Claude Van Damme teamed up with Key & Peele director Peter Atencio and show creator Dave Callaham would deliver something hilarious and high-quality that took equal turns paying loving tribute to JCVD’s colorful career while also playfully pointing and laughing at the man himself. What makes JCVJ feel so miraculous, however, is how fully-realized it is, how much genuine pathos is brought to surface and how full-on wacky it gets. That a studio looked at the breadth of what goes down over the course of these six episodes and said, “Yeah, sure, run with it, and here’s a few million dollars to do so” warms my Van Damme fanboy heart to no end.
For those who haven’t watched the superb pilot episode (part of Amazon’s 2016 “pilot season”) or who haven’t read my review of said episode (you jerks), JCVJ stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as Jean-Claude Van Damme. By day he’s an international movie star, by night he goes by the code name Johnson and saves the world as a covert black ops agent using his film roles as cover. Or at least, he used to. Retired for years both in front of the camera and behind enemy lines, JC is weary and worn, reduced to one night stands and being mistaken for Nicolas Cage at trendy restaurants. When a run-in with Vanessa, his former flame and field partner, propels JC to get back into the game once more, he jets off to Bulgaria to stop a nefarious drug smuggling racket and film an action-packed adaptation of Huckleberry Finn. But is it too much too soon? Is Johnson even capable of coming back?
Like some of the best Key & Peele episodes, JCVJ isn’t “just” comedy, although comedy is at the forefront. There’s more to it than laughs, but I’ll get to that in a moment. The show leans hard into taking as many cracks as it can at everything from modern hotshot directors to the studio system’s craven desire to cater to China for boffo box office returns to Van Damme’s own perceived nature as an actor and action star. Nothing is sacred, nothing is off limits. And while the humor is never mean-spirited, it also never pulls a punch. The Van Damme of JCVJ is an unabashed weirdo, and so is some of what happens to him. Weather machines, henchmen with marble-carved hands, THREE Van Dammes on-screen at once. JCVJ is unafraid to take elements from nearly every one of JCVD’s standout films, turn said elements on their head a bit and sprinkle them through the season. Dedicated Van Damme-o-philes will appreciate every nod and reference, but even if you’re not well-versed in the man’s films, if absurd humor played completely straight is your bag then you’ll still find a lot to guffaw at here.
The craft propelling the show is exceptional as well, though that shouldn’t be surprising if you’ve watched even a single episode or sketch of Key & Peele. Atencio always brought a cinematic sensibility to nearly every single sketch no matter the concept or gag and that carries through to JCVJ. This looks and moves better than a good number of Van Damme’s feature films, and in some ways you could essentially count this as one long film. Even in an age where TV shows are built around seasons and not episodes, this feels particularly connected as it moves from one to the next. And speaking of moves, Van Damme’s best directors have a prime sense for his particular physicality and can showcase that within the frame. Atencio displays that understanding and while he doesn’t quite showcase the adeptness of, say, Ringo Lam or John Woo, it’s clear he’s paid close attention to how those masters have captured The Muscles from Brussels.
But even more than capturing his physicality, Atencio captures JCVD’s emotive side. There may be no other slice of entertainment, not even JCVD, that better showcases Van Damme’s dramatic chops. While the wacky comedy and action beats permeate the season, it’s all held together thanks to a dramatic throughline that echoes the recurring themes of his feature films. As should be familiar to anyone who follows The Van Dammage Report, this show is ultimately about Van Damme’s fight not for his life or to save the world (though both of those things happen), but for family. He just wants someone to love him. He has a hole in his heart, one that’s been there since childhood when he was unceremoniously dumped in an orphanage and forced to forge his own path in life. He’s never had a family, and he’s been desperately searching for one ever since. But what makes Jean-Claude Van Johnson such remarkable addition to the JCVD canon is that Atencio, and particularly episode 6’s writer Kevin Costello, shows just what the man has been missing and it’s revealed in an incredibly touching moment woven into the climax of the final episode. In order to propel and inspire himself to hold onto the most epic split of his life, JC realizes that it’s not the love of a woman, child or even a mother or a father that can fill the hole in his heart, but a genuine ability to love and accept himself as he is. It effectively recontexualizes the recurring themes found in so many of Van Damme’s films to date while also providing a sublime bit of understated acting for the man himself.
But as good as JCVD is, and how well Atencio and the show’s writers craft material for him, the show shines brighter thanks to a superb supporting cast that are every bit as committed to playing this uncommon mix of comedy and drama as Van Damme. Kat Foster as Vanessa is a solid foil for JC, busting his balls when necessary but still finding nuance in their relationship. Moises Arias might be the MVP here of stone-faced comedic delivery. But the real treat is the sparing use of Phylicia Rashad as JC’s agency handler, Jane. There are some quite unexpected moments for Jane both comedically and otherwise and Rashad nails them all of them. It’s inspired casting and my only complaint is that I was left begging for more scenes with her.
Overall this was everything I hoped it would be and more. It’s a near-perfect bit of meta-humor mixed with a genuine love for all things Van Damme that any fan of the man and his work would do well to experience. I can’t wait to see what Atencio and company cook up for season 2, though if the final few seconds of this season are any indication, it could go some even more unexpected places than we already saw. Here’s hoping.
Van Dammage Report Statistics For Jean-Claude Van Johnson Season 1:
Number of splits: 2.5
Number of split kicks: 1
Reason for being European: He’s Jean-Claude Van Damme, native of Brussels, Belgium.
Best line: “I love you.”
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Until Death | The Hard Corps | Second in Command | Wake of Death | In Hell | Derailed | The Order| 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