On a recent episode of WTF with Marc Maron, James Franco discusses his brief stint on General Hospital and explains how unnecessary it was to affect his performance to fit the Soap Opera mold. Makeup, lights, writing, music, editing and the super fast shooting schedule took his straight acting and shaped it into the Soap Opera aesthetic for him. In other words, form itself modulated the perception of how his (and all other Soap actors’) performance was perceived. Even Daniel Day-Lewis would look like a bad actor on a Soap.
I thought about this a lot while watching Jean-Claude Van Johnson (which you can, and should, watch right now on Amazon Prime). The comparison is a bit of a stretch, but it’s true we don’t come to action films for the acting. Physical performances, yes. But dramatic heights, no. While it’s easy to know when an action star is awful (Howie Long and Ronda Rousey, for instance), the form makes it hard for actually good performances to stand out.
Which perhaps offers one explanation for why we’ve taken Jean-Claude Van Damme for granted all these years. It also doesn’t help that his transformation into a great actor began in the early 2000s when no one was looking. Starting around In Hell, pop culture’s image of JCVD as a smirking hot shot doing the splits became erroneous, replaced by a much more interesting sad and weathered persona some directors utilized while others ignored. Anyone who doubts this should watch the excellent JCVD to see what I mean.
Or you could watch Jean-Claude Van Johnson, which offers Jean-Claude Van Damme a perfect platform to show the world everything he is capable of as an actor. He fights, yes. He also participates in jokes, some actively from him, others at the expense of his own vanity. In the act of satirizing himself, Van Damme plays with layers and gets to show off every acting muscle he has, including his surprising skill for heartfelt emotion.
For those who didn’t watch the show’s pilot last year, Jean-Claude Van Johnson’s premise is one for the ages. The idea is that while being an action movie star in the ‘90s, JCVD was also a secret agent saving the world. Now retired, washed up and aged, he decides to get back into the game after a chance encounter with his old lover Vanessa (Kat Foster). It takes some convincing, but his boss Jane (the incredible Phylicia Rashad) gets him on the Bulgarian set of a dumb action retelling of Huckleberry Finn.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson is overall focused on comedy, but that tone gives way to plot and genuine action as the story progresses. Over the course of its six-episode run, we’re essentially offered one of the best-told narratives of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career (granted, that’s not exactly a high bar). Most episodes feature at least one big action sequence, and while many are tongue-in-cheek on a broader level, they are still legitimate fight scenes filled with great moves which prove Van Damme’s enduring physical prowess. The plot progresses at a great pace. Its opening Huckleberry Finn setting, which the show has a lot of fun with, only lasts a few episodes, as JCVJ has no interest in sticking around one joke - or plot device - too long. And even as the story gets more serious, there’s always room for absurdity. For instance, the whole thing peaks about halfway through as JCVD confronts an identical comic character Filip, as well as a JCVD from the future. Three Van Dammes, all in the same room!
And while these multiple Van Dammes all over the place speak to Van Damme’s vain trope of playing twin characters, the show’s real action hero is not JCVD at all but Vanessa. Initially just a love interest, Vanessa’s arc has the most movement of anyone on the show. Van Damme recedes from action star to mentor, and by the end, he’s creatively using the splits to buy Vanessa time so she can take out the series’ main villain. Van Damme’s ultimately just support, which is really cool and refreshing to see.
Of all the muscle-headed ‘90s action stars pop culture discarded to jokey obscurity, Jean-Claude Van Damme is easily the most interesting and talented. But in a landscape of direct-to-video films (some of which are truly excellent, by the way), it’s difficult to find a way to let that talent shine. Jean-Claude Van Johnson gives JCVD probably the best chance to impress that he’s ever going to get. And on top of that, it’s a highly entertaining series filled with smart jokes, fun nostalgia and for-real good action. It’s a great show for anyone, but for JCVD fans, it’s an all-out gift.