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Amazon’s latest a Van Damme good one

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“Jean-Claude Van Johnson” an absurd action parody

One of the joys inherent to the multitude of streaming services and niche cable channels is the fact that there’s room for things to get weird.

Amazon Studios has already shown their willingness to lean into the bizarre with their run of “The Tick,” but as strange as that show is, it’s got nothing on their latest release “Jean-Claude Van Johnson.”

The show – which stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as a version of himself who also happens to be an elite secret agent of sorts – sprang from one of Amazon’s periodic pilot votes, where they offer up pilot episodes of potential series and allow audiences to vote as to whether or not they get picked up.

As things stand right now, it’s just six episodes including the aforementioned pilot. And they’re just half-an-hour apiece; you can watch the whole series in an evening, no problem.

And I have to say, you really should.

It’s a high-concept show, to be sure – this version of Van Damme is still an aging action star, but he’s also a secret agent working to battle evil at the highest levels around the globe. Basically, the latter part of his movie star career was merely cover for a series of covert operations at the behest of his talent agency, led by enigmatic film agent/spy handler Jane (Phylicia Rasad).

The arc of the series follows Van Damme as he gets back into the spy game after a lengthy absence. Alongside his hairdresser/partner/former lover Vanessa (Kat Foster), he heads to Bulgaria, where he’s starring in a gritty reboot of “Huckleberry Finn” and trying to thwart some sort of evil scheme involving a drug cartel. Only it turns out that the drug cartel is merely a front for a much more diabolical scheme to take over the world.

Like I said – weird.

Over the course of six episodes, we get a remarkably self-aware deconstruction of action movie tropes and a metacommentary on the fleeting nature of fame. At the forefront is Van Damme, who is apparently a far better actor than he has ever been given credit for. He leans into the lunacy of the concept by embracing this hyperstylized version of himself. Even his face, which looks every one of its nearly 60 years, is worn and creased and wonderfully honest. He owns all of it and it is just a delight. An absurd delight.

Van Damme is elevated even further by a dynamic supporting cast. Foster is an ideal foil for Van Damme; there’s a steeliness there that works even as she commits to the underlying nuttiness of the conceit. She’s got comedic chops and can handle herself action-wise – so much so that she even manages to hold some of the spotlight in her own right. Rashad is low-key excellent here; just across-the-board great. Moises Arias is spectacular as Luis, a diminutive whirlwind of an operative, while Tim Pepar and Bar Paly shine as “Huckleberry Finn” director Gunnar and sexy Tom Sawyer Krisztina, respectively.

I’m not here to spoil any of the specifics, but I will say this - “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” is bats—t insane in all the best ways. The satiric commentary – about movies in general and action movies specifically – is thick on the ground; there are occasional misfires on the part of Peter Atencio (who directed all six episodes) and show creator Dave Callaham (who also wrote the first two episodes), but we’re mostly looking at solid hits here. Ridiculous action sequences, ludicrous plot twists, subversive settings – it’s all here. And it’s all wonderful.

Real talk – “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” certainly isn’t for everybody. If you’re not ready to get weird – and I do mean WEIRD – then maybe you’ll struggle. As someone with a deep affection for both Jean-Claude Van Damme and the sorts of movies he starred in, I loved it. If you’ve got room in your life for a lunatic over-the-top action meta-parody, then this series is a hell of a way to spend three hours.


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