I have no idea if Jean-Claude Van Johnson has enough storytelling potential to fill a full season of television, but the strength of the pilot episode demands it be given the chance. One of the three shows featured in Amazon’s latest Pilot Season, this single episode is one of the funniest pieces of television of seen all year, and I can only hope that it gets enough love for the streaming service to give it a full shot.
The premise on this one is about as high concept as they come, with famed action movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme being not just an actor, but also a former secret agent. Codenamed Johnson, Van Damme seeks to return to the field for a chance to reconnect with his former flame Vanessa (Kat Foster) and find a renewed sense of purpose in his life. However, Van Damme finds that field work isn’t as easy as it once was, leaving him unsure what his the future actually holds for him.
As far as show concepts go, it’s not a bad one; countless films and series in the past have featured a retired agent returning to the field while also trying to juggle their civilian identity. However, it’s the inclusion of the Muscles from Brussels himself that raises the concept to a new level. Van Damme is in top form here, portraying a world-weary, disillusioned version of himself that has all of the riches of a superstar – not to mention the JCVD-branded slippers – but who lacks a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
It’s an inherently ludicrous premise, which makes it all the more surprising how straight the show plays things. This is still a comedy, but nowhere near as broad and wacky as the initial description of the show made me expect. Instead, this almost feels like a years-later sequel to 2008’s JCVD, just with a spy thriller twist. The tone works, though, and it allows Van Damme to recapture one of the best performances of his career.
And the slightly serious feel never gets in the way of the comedy, which is a constant stream of dark humor and great meta-references. Van Damme’s career makes for the source of several great laughs, from a barista mistaking him for Nicolas Cage to a security guard referencing Timecop before Johnson’s cover is blown. The best bit, though, is the explanation for why Van Damme does so many direct-to-DVD movies: they just happen to shoot in Eastern European countries where Johnson’s missions take place.
Speaking of those cheap action films, special mention should go to the one featured here, an action reimagining of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that stars Van Damme in the lead role and a gender-bent Tom Sawyer as the romantic lead. We only get a glimpse of this ludicrous production in the pilot, but the promise of further scenes from this cheesy production are more than enough to justify a full-season order.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson also delivers plenty of great action scenes, as any Van Damme production should. This includes a fight from the aforementioned Huck Finn film as well as a throw down with a group of security guards (who are of course fought one at a time, a logical strategy as explained in yet another great meta joke). And rest assured, Van Damme gives us the splits that have come to define his career in one of the episode’s most triumphant moments.
That gets to the heart of it, honestly: Jean-Claude Van Johnson is a triumph, a late-career highlight of humor, action, and surprising depth for the veteran actor. There’s really no telling if the show can maintain the high quality of this episode across an entire season, but I’d love to see it get the chance. If nothing else, this episode is a delight, one that anyone with Prime membership should give a try.
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Jean-Claude Van Johnson is part of Amazon’s Pilot Season, available to all Amazon Prime members.