Jean-Claude Van Damme is bringing absurdity back to the action genre

No retreat, no surrender.
No retreat, no surrender.
Image: Reuters/Christian Hartmann
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“No one’s going to die, except for all the people I’m going to kill,” Jean-Claude Van Damme says  in Jean-Claude Van Johnson, an upcoming series from Amazon. It’s a line that he might have played straight in an early 1990s action film, but here it’s used to make fun of the genre that he himself helped pioneer, movies that were staples of American entertainment for more than a decade.

Van Damme will play a self-deprecating version of himself in the new series. As in real-life, he’s an older, washed-up martial artist and actor (“I used to be super famous,” he deadpans in the trailer), except now he’s using his status as a Hollywood icon to go undercover as an operative: “Johnson.”

The series lampoons the type of cheesy roles that made Van Damme famous, and also references a few modern action film franchises like The Fast and the Furious and Taken. Jean-Claude Van Johnson premieres on Amazon Video on Dec. 15.

Here’s the trailer, released today:

Jean-Claude Van Johnson comes at a time when the Hollywood action genre has churned out boringly grim hit after boringly grim hit. There are, of course, exceptions, but most action films look and sound the same, feature similar plots (Revenge! Middle-age white guy taking on an entire criminal organization! Sexual violence!), and lack the type of levity that made those cheesy 1990s action films so fun to watch.

These films, though occasionally well-made and marginally entertaining, eschew self-awareness. That’s what makes Jean-Claude Van Johnson a timely reprieve.

Van Damme is not the first actor to play a fictionalized version of himself helping the US government catch bad guys in a series on a streaming TV service. Veronica Mars star Ryan Hansen stars in Ryan Hansen Solves Crime on Television, an upcoming series on YouTube Red that is exactly what it sounds like.

Van Damme has already played versions of himself twice before: In an episode of the TV show Las Vegas (in which he was promptly killed off), and also in the 2008 film JCVD. About the latter, the late film critic Roger Ebert said, “Van Damme says worse things about himself than critics would dream of saying, and the effect is shockingly truthful.”