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‘Jean-Claude Van Johnson’ review: Fascinating, but uneven

Jean-Claude Van Damme as the lead in Amazon

Jean-Claude Van Damme as the lead in Amazon Prime's "Jean-Claude Van Johnson." Credit: Amazon Prime Video / Aaron Epstein

THE SERIES “Jean-Claude Van Johnson”

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Amazon Prime

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Jean-Claude Van Damme was once a famous martial arts movie action hero — or at least that’s what the world and showbiz bible Variety thought. He was also a secret undercover agent — with mad martial arts skills — who went by the alias Jean-Claude Van Johnson. Now retired, he sees a former lover and undercover colleague, Vanessa (Kat Foster), in a hip L.A. restaurant. To win her back, he decides to un-retire, and offers his services to Jane (Phylicia Rashad), the mysterious and powerful boss of the covert agency he once worked for.

MY SAY What was the last live action movie Van Damme was in? Don’t sweat this one. It’s hard. The answer lies in that vast trove of esoterica, where misbegotten roles are forever listed, and bad movies are as exhaustively cataloged as any Oscar winner. That would be IMDB. Van Damme last starred in “Kill ’Em All” (2017), “Pound of Flesh” (2015), “Full Love” and “Swelter” (both 2014). The 57-year-old Belgian has been busy, but by title alone one can also infer that he’s been partying like it’s 1993, when he was one of the biggest action stars in the world along with Dolph Lundgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

If Van Damme can’t quite let go of the past, this six-parter is about coming to terms with it. He’s made some terrible movies, and “Van Johnson” is often terrible, too. But that’s the whole point: This is Van Damme’s public penance, his late midlife crisis and his existential yelp, which is probably best interpreted as, “What the hell have I done?!”

There are some scenes when the camera settles on Van Damme’s eyes, from which a deep ineffable sadness wells up, then spills out. It’s chilling and nearly heartbreaking. At those moments, you almost want to reach through the lens and offer a reassuring pat on the back: “Don’t worry, Jean-Claude. You absolutely were a cool action hero back in the day. And the accent? At least that still kills. ”

We can all feel for poor, creaky Van Damme, but should we watch his new series? If you have three precious hours to do something else — shop, sleep, eat, walk the dog — then perhaps not. It can be strange, uneven, awkward and frequently not good because “good” is not the goal. The fight scenes are positively geriatric.

But in its own peculiarly “meta” way, “Van Johnson” exerts a genuine fascination. Where does the man begin and the star end? Do his roles define him as much as he defined them? Does he exist in his own preset “Groundhog Day” time loop and doomed to repeat himself (along with those movies) over and over and over? There are many broad winks to an audience that surely remembers some Van Damme chestnuts, like “Timecop” and “Hard Target.” For example, he tells Vanessa, “when you have nowhere to run, you must run to nowhere.” That’s a reference to his famous ’93 bomb, “Nowhere to Run” — but maybe also commentary on his own life and new series.

BOTTOM LINE Van Damme — older, wiser and slower, also wrinkled, hunched and melancholy — salvages an otherwise fascinating, uneven mess.

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