Jackass Forever is a kinder, gentler Jackass, but thankfully, it’s not a more mature one. If anything, Johnny Knoxville and his merry band of gluttons for punishment have regressed, in the best way possible, utilizing the full array of modern filmmaking to portray some of the most sophomoric stuff ever put onscreen. The film begins with a stunt sequence more expensive and elaborate than probably any in Jackass history, as Knoxville, in full-on Lieutenant-Colonel-Kilgore-from-Apocalypse-Now costume, leads a small army of soldiers against a giant, flaccid, awfully familiar-looking kaiju wreaking destruction across a metropolis. Naturally, the kaiju turns out to be Chris Pontius’s penis and testicles, painted and led around by wires and strings across a miniature toy city. The magic of cinema!
You get one guess as to how this scene, uh, climaxes.
Of course, most Jackass stunts end in predictably gruesome ways. As I argued recently, what makes a Jackass stunt a Jackass stunt isn’t really the difficulty or the cleverness or the grossness of the activity, but the interactions among the perpetrators, victims, and spectators. First comes the stunt, then comes the agony and, finally, the camaraderie. So really, what’s the point of comparing, say, the spectacle of Dave England and Ryan Dunn being trapped in a limo full of bees in Jackass Number Two to Steve-O getting a whole hive of bees to attach to his penis in Jackass Forever? What matters is what happens afterward — the inevitable shrieking and cussing and laughing and trying to get away from all the bees. (And, occasionally, some surveying of the damage: “There’s a lot of them in, like, the taint area.”) Knoxville and his director, Jeff Tremaine, clearly know this, as they devote untold amounts of screen time to the aftermath of each stunt, their cameras intently capturing all the cackling and hugging.
There is a lot of hugging in Jackass Forever, believe it or not, and most of it feels sincere. Knoxville is clearly glad to have these people here with him. Part of the reason for that might be that the film reunites a crew whose last outing was 11 years ago, and who first began these shenanigans back in 2000. (There are some new additions, including the first female Jackass, Rachel Wolfson, who performs the one stunt in this movie that has already given me nightmares, called “Scorpion Botox.”) Part of it might also be that Knoxville himself, having suffered any number of concussions and other genuinely dangerous injuries over the years, feels lucky to be here. Part of it might be that they’ve lost members along the way; Ryan Dunn, to whom the film is dedicated, died in 2011, and Bam Margera is also no longer part of the team. Perhaps for all these reasons, Jackass Forever, while enormously fun, is a more emotional movie than previous entries. You sense that among the people onscreen, and you might also sense it in the audience. Watching these middle-aged masochists keep hurting themselves for our pleasure reminds us of the passage of time.
But even when it comes to the stunts, there is a slightly softer edge to this Jackass than previous entries. There’s certainly less shit and vomit this time around (though probably more abused dongs) and fewer stunts that seem designed to genuinely break people’s bodies, save for one spectacular climactic bit involving a bull that clearly did break Knoxville’s. If electrical zappers freak you out, you’re in luck, because they go to that well repeatedly. Although the cast and crew’s reactions assure us that these zappers are a fair bit more powerful than the average party-trick kind, the effect does feel a bit small, a bit mundane, for Jackass. Still, they make the most of it, and the compact nature of the zappers means that one can be sprung on any unsuspecting cast member at any point in time.
There was also a certain brash, self-aware mean-spiritedness in the earlier films that washed out in the end because everybody was ultimately in on the joke. (Such pranks might have felt too pointlessly cruel on their own, but they worked within the context of the movies.) There’s a lot less of that here, perhaps because of the absence of Margera, who was often the instigator of those stunts, and sometimes their chief victim; his attacks on his mother and father were a legendary running bit. Those weren’t the highlights of the earlier films, but they did give the pictures a certain dimension — a sense that we were watching not a series of disconnected gags but a whole ecosystem of tomfoolery and dickheadedness.
Jackass Forever does have one truly elaborate, multilevel prank that might be one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen anywhere. I won’t tell you what happens, but let’s just say it involves a deadly rattlesnake, a darkened room, some pots and pans, and a table full of thumbtacks and mousetraps. And it’s enacted on various sets of victims; the film cuts among their different reactions, so we get the full range of emotions. By the time it really is over, Ehren McGhehey seems downright traumatized. He insists on never leaving the room lest more horrors await him beyond the doors. “I’ll start a new life in here! I will fucking live here!” he yells. He looks like he means it. And honestly, who can blame him? Good times.
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