Amazon wins the weird-TV Olympics with “Jean-Claude Van Johnson,” a surreal flight of comic fancy starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, which begins with lots of manic energy and pretty quickly runs out of gas. Think of it as the scripted version of a reality-TV show about a washed-up star, albeit one who secretly gets his kicks as a super-spy.
Turning Van Damme into a madcap version of himself – one who’s really a covert operative when not shooting movies – sounds inspired, but the show gradually makes one want to split more than watch the famously nimble action star do the splits.
Van Damme’s willingness to spoof his own image plays a central role within the show. When the story begins, he’s retired, both from acting (which explains why a guy confuses him with Nicolas Cage) and espionage, having once used his international film work as cover for missions – like “I Spy,” only with brawnier residual payments.
Van Damme is inspired to get back in the game by a chance meeting with Vanessa (Kat Foster), his spy partner and one-time lover, who masqueraded as his hairstylist during their endeavors. So they’re reunited as Van Damme takes the starring role in a movie (a “reimagining” of Huckleberry Finn, no less) shooting in Bulgaria, thus allowing him to delve into a shadowy plot to take over the world.
His agent/handler, Jane (Phylicia Rashad), also plays a dual role in mediating Van Damme’s twin careers, alternating between brokering deals and doling out life-and-death assignments.
Created by David Callaham (“The Expendables”), “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” (a title, incidentally, destined to give headline writers nightmares) simply tries too hard, and winds up feeling too cute for its own good. Taking a kitchen-sink approach, it’s a spoof of James Bond movies, an “Entourage”-like satire of Hollywood stardom and at times an actual action series, with violent sequences designed to cash in on its star’s martial-arts skills.
The show’s at its best in the early going, when Van Damme is in the throes of has-been-hood – introduced sulking, reading Variety, tooling around on a Segue and explaining why his opulent home features coconut-water plumbing.
Those gags, though, quickly begin to run dry, and even at a mere six half-hour episodes, get stretched beyond even Van Damme’s legendary limberness. Ultimately, there’s only so much mileage to be gleaned from listening to the aging star grouse about the fact that “Looper” basically stole the plot from his earlier movie, “Timecop.”
“I should never have come back,” Van Damme/Van Johnson mutters at one point, the kind of line that can make a critic’s job a little too easy.
To be fair, the idea underlying the show isn’t a bad one. It’s just in the execution where it would help if the star really could turn back time.
“Jean-Claude Van Johnson” premieres Dec. 15 on Amazon.