Jean-Claude Van Johnson’s mightiest foe is its own genre. It faces the inherent problem of extended parody—as a series in which the actor Jean-Claude Van Damme (playing himself) goes undercover as a spy named Jean-Claude Van Johnson must—which is that the longer your satire extends, the harder it is to keep the structure of it alive.
Saturday Night Live sketches, or perhaps more appropriately Key and Peele sketches (the latter and JCVJ share a director in Peter Atencio), are short and sweet. They get in, get the gag and get out. When SNL sketches become movies or a one-joke premise becomes a series, the first and most important task is to prove that it deserves to survive past the first punchline. The otherwise competent aging spy comedy/meta-action romp Jean-Claude Van Johnson simply can’t keep it up.
The most disappointing part of all is that JCVJ, like most streaming series with great premises, starts off strong. There are thirty different kinds of dumb and wonderful, with Van Damme chasing his past every way he can—in his acting, in his second job spying, and in his love life. His younger ex/handler, Vanessa (Kat Foster), and hairdresser/backup team member, Luis (Moises Arias), aid him on his journeys undercover, most of which seem to end up on a movie set, but they have little to do in a series completely centered on The Muscles from Brussels.
While the series only has eyes for him, the world has no place for Van Damme. This means he’ll have to make one. In doing so, the show embraces the camp of his fame-making films with added irony familiar to those who’ve watched Atencio’s Key & Peele and Keanu. There’s sadness and despondency packed into bad movie tropes alongside some real world-referencing absurdity. This works best when the episodes keep up with the creative, skillful, and varied direction, as in an inspired Tokyo Drift sequence that will give enthusiasts a delightful new sound bite about drift racing.
When these violently off-the-wall sequences give way to more standard spy fare, the show loses all momentum. Even with the crazy superspy tropes—a double, a world domination weather machine, etc.¬—there’s far too much time spent on the real, sensible plot rather than the wildness of the world. It should be much less Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and more John Wick.
That would allow the Bulgarian-set season to fluorish in its weirdness rather than flounder looking for fans in the divide between sarcastic pitch and sustained season. The fun shouldn’t be the tracking of a drug lord, but the creation of the weather machine and the taking over of the world. That the fun ratio is off between these topics is unforgivable when the tone has already been so well-established as a weird comedy.
The biggest boon of the season is Van Damme himself. Playing multiple roles, due to some sketchy time travel and one goofy evil twin joke, Van Damme solidifies himself as a killer comic performer able to juggle choreography and punch lines all at once. The third episode’s Kermit-voiced, Gollum-acting body double, Filip (Van Damme), is a season highlight. There’s something engrossingly strange about having a character who adores an actor also being played by that actor: I can’t tell if I groan because I like it, like the begrudging appreciation of a good pun, or if that groan is from somewhere much deeper in my psyche.
Similar to this year’s The Square, there’s also a rumination on art and fame here that’s never given the love and attention it deserves, and much falls to the wayside while the show struggles for purpose. Phylicia Rashad’s Jane, with whom Morris (Richard Schiff) operates Van Damme’s spy agency, never gets much to do, and neither do Van Damme’s field-op co-stars: Arias’ character is underwritten, while Foster’s feels intentionally underserved.
Rather than deign to give Vanessa actual scenes, she mostly gets to stand in montages and have things happen to her—there’s nothing subversive about her goofy slo-mo fights, stereotypical spy backstory, or romantic tension with her subterfuge-prone co-worker. She’s just there as someone to be around Van Damme, which is bad not only because it doesn’t give the actress anything to do, but also because it continues a thread from earlier that’s the show’s biggest problem: I just don’t care.
Long stretches of the series are neither funny like a satire should be, nor interesting enough on their own terms as a spy plot—though the narrative at least implements inter-episode time jumps that feel suitably spy-like and cut out the logistical boredom that can seep its way into even the silliest of spy-adjacent stories (think the later Fast and Furious films). It’s unfortunate, since the series’ namesake always entertains. Whether JCVD is failing to drop into his iconic splits or using his wrinkled scowl to impart maximum sadness, he’s matured into a wonderfully understated comic actor, a weathered meathead somewhere between James Bond and Leslie Nielsen’s WD-40 Dick Steele. He deserves far more focused work than Jean-Claude Van Johnson is willing to give him.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson premieres Friday, Dec. 15 on Amazon Prime.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.