What do 80s and 90s action stars do when they get older? Well, there are several viable options. Stallone went the do-it-yourself route, and wrote, directed and starred in sequels to his most successful franchises. Schwarzenegger, took the more round-about route of starring in increasingly desperate looking little movies, seemingly in the hope of scoring a sleeper hit. Then he tried the sequel route, which did well commercially… in China. But not quite well enough.
Then there’s Van Damme, the Muscles of Brussels, who always had better credentials as an action star, but who couldn’t quite sustain the giddy heights of his action comrades and saw his career slide into a white haze of cocaine and bad decisions. What should he do? Now we have our answer and it’s Jean-Claude Van Johnson, a parody of JCVD’s existence that is knowing to the point of self-flagellation, open hearted and hilarious.
JCVD is a secret agent, an old, retired secret agent, who rides a Segway and has coconut water piped through every faucet in his house. The movies were just a cover for his work as code name Van Johnson. Then one day he sees his ex-girlfriend, who is also a spy, collecting take-out, and he realises it’s time to dust off his old moves –the romantic ones and the trouser tearing head-kicking ones, and returns to active duty as a star and a super-spy.
In the early episodes, this concept is adhered to closely and the results are largely successful for a number of reasons. Firstly, for kids of a certain age (middle-age that is), there’s a real nostalgic thrill in seeing Van Damme back on screen in a major production, well major-ish – the whole thing carries the tinge of B-movies, which only adds to its appeal. It’s also good to see that he’s in remarkable shape, even if his face, once so roguishly handsome, now looks like a leather mask that’s slipped sideways a bit. The comedy is hardly biting, but JCVD seems so aware of his own absurdity and is so committed to exploiting his reputation for comic effect, that far more often than not it all works.
Part of the fun of Van Johnson is seeing JCVD trying to regain his skills after a long layoff, both as an actor and a secret agent. He’s starring in an action-orientated adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, called Huck. (Tagline, “Time to get Hucked!”) While at the same time he’s involved in taking down a powerful drug-cartel. The pleasures here are many. You get to see Van Damme making fun of how old and inept he is when in combat, and then, as the skills come back, fans of 80s and 90s action get to watch him do what he always did best: spin around and kick people in the face. Or do the splits and punch people in the balls, whichever you prefer.
At the midpoint the show settles down somewhat as JCVD’s skills have fully returned and so the show tries to re-align itself as a real spy-action series. Mostly this comes off as a sillier version of James Bond, with a rather derivative plot twist, which we won’t reveal here. There are still a few moments of comic brilliance, however. A training sequence that takes place in a closed down Blockbuster, where no one has looked for JCVD in twenty years, is a small stroke of genius.
This tone shift is then followed by another, as the series begins to feel like a public soul bearing for Van Damme. Those of you who remember JCVD’s famous tearful monologue in the movie of the same name will know what I’m talking about. Not only does Van Damme have to rediscover the hero within himself, he also has to learn to love himself, and commune with his damaged inner child. Fans of action comedy may find their attentions wandering a little here, but it must be said that personal demons are a part of Van Damme’s story and he acquits himself admirably in these dramatic scenes, even if such bare truths don’t sit neatly alongside what has gone before.
It must also be said that Van Johnson isn’t all about JCVD. Kat Foster, who plays his hairstylist, spy colleague and love interest Vanessa, makes the most impact out of the supporting cast. It’s true that at times she’s the straight comic-foil for all of Van Damme’s antics, but she’s also smart, sexy, and tough in her own right. As much as Van Johnson is about JCVD getting back his mojo, it’s also about Vanessa living up to her potential.
Despite it’s imperfections, or perhaps because of them, Jean-Claude Van Johnson is enormously watchable (and re-watchable). It’s funny, action-packed, and, for people of a certain age, nostalgic, self-referential and rather satisfying. Perhaps its most significant short-comings lies in trying to take a complex, eccentric man and unpack every aspect of his mystique, his public persona and his private life across a six part, three-hour series. Of course, it’s a bit of a mess. Just like the man himself. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Just like the man himself.
4 / 5