Fearless and stupid is no way to go through life. Why would any thinking human invite a professional hockey player to hurl a puck straight toward his barely protected private parts, or have his penis squished between two Plexiglass plates in the service of—ostensibly—improving on the classic game of paddleball? Yet most members of the original cast of Jackass, which aired on MTV for three seasons in the early 2000s and later spawned a trio of hit movies, have survived any number of similar nut-busting stunts to reach the ripe old age of 50 or so.
What does this tell us about our weird-and-getting-weirder society, about aging, or even just about the Jackass guys, gluttons for punishment who, like those old-fashioned punching-bag clowns weighted with sand, always (or nearly always) come back laughing? The answers to these questions may or may not be found in Jackass Forever, the fourth feature-length collection of primo Jackass high jinks. The only certainty is that this movie is embarrassingly pleasurable, for reasons that probably have less to do with 21st-century enlightenment than with the time the first caveman tripped over a rock, made his friends laugh, and then, perhaps as a self-healing response to his own busted toe, burst out laughing himself.
It takes a special type of caveman to be a Jackass, and Jackass Forever—directed by Jeff Tremaine, also the ringleader of the previous three films—reassembles most of the original crew, an assortment of old-school skateboarders and oddball daredevils including Steve-O, of the million-dollar blinding-white smile; Chris Pontius, who never met a penis gag he didn’t like; pooping expert Dave England; Jason “Wee Man” Acuña, small in stature but with balls of steel; Ehren “Danger” McGhehey, who’ll take on any stunt rejected by the others, often much to his regret; and Preston Lacy, a gent who happily lends his girth to any gag that will benefit from it. (Original member Bam Margara was dismissed from the production last year after reportedly violating a wellness agreement; another of the original group, Ryan Dunn, died in a 2011 automobile accident, and the film is dedicated to him.)
Presiding over the whole delightfully sorry enterprise is Johnny Knoxville, lanky, loose-limbed, and carefree, ready at a moment’s notice to be shot out of a cannon or confront an irritable bull. It’s been more than 10 years since the last Jackass film, Jackass 3D, and in some of the sequences in Jackass Forever—filmed over the past few years, with one big interruption courtesy of COVID-19—Knoxville’s hair is its old youthful brown, albeit graced with a glowing bald spot. But mostly, it has gone gloriously whitish gray, turning Knoxville, 50, into the first Jackass silver fox.
He and all of the Jackass crew must sense the breeze of time’s winged chariot catching up with their naked butts. And so Jackass Forever includes a number of enthusiastic new recruits, among them a go-for-broke hotdogger who goes by Poopies (his real name is Sean McInerney), and Rachel Wolfson, the sole woman of the group, who undergoes a lip-enhancement procedure known as Scorpion Botox. (It’s just what you think it is.) The movie also features several guests, among them Machine Gun Kelly, Tyler the Creator, and pro heavyweight boxer Francis Ngannou; they’re the straight-men who help set up the routines, though in some cases they gamely suffer a few hard knocks.
But Jackass Forever suggests that the charms—if you could call them that—of the original cast aren’t easy to replicate. It shouldn’t be fun to watch anybody being humiliated. Yet the core Jackass group make it fun, not only by laughing at each other, but by so willingly laughing at themselves. To detail too many of the Jackass Forever gags would only spoil them. You must see the Vomitron and the Skateboard Guillotine for yourself to fully grasp their willful absurdity. How about the underwater exploding fart, a stunt the guys have attempted, and failed at, before? (Will the “fartcanter” be the methane receptacle that at last does the trick?) Perhaps it’s enough for you to know that Steve-O agrees, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, to have a little cage containing a queen bee affixed to his naked member, which quickly attracts an enthusiastic pile-on of workers—they glom on like a moving, living beard. The image is strangely beautiful. But as Steve-O lets us know, in no uncertain terms, there are places where you never, ever want a bee to sting you.
Human beings are divided into two camps: those who think the Jackass guys are funny and those who don’t. I’m a loyal member of the first camp, but I do understand the second—how should it be funny to watch our fellow human beings suffer? Yet it’s how these guys suffer that makes a difference. They’re a league of stoic man-babies, trying hard to be he-men who can take anything, and often failing miserably. They’re fascinated with their own genitals yet also unafraid to subject those tender parts to excruciating pain, all for the sake of laughs. Their eagerness to do ridiculous things is twinned with their willingness to be viewed as ridiculous men—and if that’s pure, exhibitionist attention-seeking, it’s also the opposite of toxic masculinity. Their frailty is on display every minute, not least when Knoxville attempts to entrance a bull with a dumb magic trick involving a top-hat full of milk and ends up, we learn later, with a concussion, a brain hemorrhage, and a bone fracture or two. To watch him being carried away from the scene on a stretcher, semi-conscious, isn’t fun. In fact, it’s a kind of misery.
Yet I’d argue that the Jackass movies, including this one, are mostly filled with joy. One of the briefest routines in Jackass Forever is also the most poetic. It’s called “The Flight of Icarus,” and it features Knoxville—after being fired out of a cannon, natch—floating through the air with gangly grace, fluffy white wings affixed to his arms, before splash-landing in a lake. Why would a human being subject himself to that dangerous indignity, just to make us laugh? Maybe because, to Knoxville, it feels like freedom, a leap into a world of possibility. And he’s old enough to know that feeling won’t last forever.
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