The most visceral scene in Jackass Forever is not Danger Ehren revisiting “The Cup Test” from the MTV series and subjecting his balls to a bastardized form of Consumer Reports scrutiny including taking a puck from former Predators defenseman P.K. Subban and impact from pogo-sticking co-star Dave England. It’s what comes in the aftermath of his bloody scrotum reveal. Decked out in his N95 according to union rules, veteran cinematographer Lance Bangs just can’t take the gore. He gags and, to his horror, realizes, he can’t get his mask off in his time. As a wave of panic washes over him, he crumbles into a hurling ball while the gang cackles and asks an assistant to bring him a new mask. The scene calls attention to the efficacy of the Jackass crew’s antics while gently encouraging its audience that it’s OK to feel the nausea seeping up from stomachs filled with popcorn and soda whose consumption was ill advised given the nature of this picture.
We’re meant to feel a pang of sympathy for Bangs amid the hilarity given that we’ve caught a seasoned vet of Jackass’s original television run on MTV and three previous movies (four if one counts 2013’s spinoff Bad Grandpa) in a rare moment of weakness. But it happens again when cast member Preston Lacy accidentally craps his pants before a prank that the crew has to abort. It’s not that Bangs can’t handle the content; it’s that the protocols put into place to protect him are clearly making things worse. Jackass has been rebelling against proper taste and social mores for more than two decades. But as the country remains mired in COVID hysteria, the franchise has finally found itself in a cultural moment when its friendly shock to the system seems downright revolutionary.
Since its television debut in 2000, Jackass has waged a performative, lo-fi assault on American popular culture that has made Johnny Knoxville and his cohorts objects of both ire and admiration. Senator and failed VP candidate Joseph Lieberman lobbied for MTV to ban the show in the wake of an alleged wave of copycat stunts, which led MTV to adopt such restrictive legal protections that, as Knoxville, director Jeff Tremaine, and producer Spike Jonze told Vice in 2017, the trio decided to preemptively cancel the show at the height of its popularity rather than compromise. The ensuing films for Paramount that began in 2002 led to some minor backlash in the same vein, but all opened at #1 and became enormous financial successes, especially given their low budgets.
Despite reveling in sophomoric abjection, something has always been going on under the franchise’s increasingly elaborate gags, a subtext which Jackass 3-D’s stunt premiere at the MoMa in 2010 gestures toward. Rooted in the punk and DIY skateboarding aesthetics that made most of its cast subculture celebrities before their stints on MTV, Jackass arrived as an overreliance on digital technology turned movies into cold CGI spectacles severed from real life. Knoxville and his band of brothers have much more in common with silent stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin than the contrivances of Candid Camera, physical comedians unafraid to subject themselves to bodily harm for a laugh. But, in its intentional amateur mode, Jackass, like the skate culture that spawned it, has always been about the type of subversion that turns handrails and alleys into makeshift obstacle courses, aiming to call attention to the rawness underneath society’s veneers. Regardless of its low–culture scruff, Jackass is well within the realm of co-creater and established indie filmmaker Jonze’s pet themes: the artificiality of identity he examined in Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002); the Big Tech influence on human interaction he tackled with Her (2013); and the animalistic impulses we repress in our efforts for acceptance he made central to his adaptation of the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are (2009). The first Jackass may have meditated on these thematic occupations through England shitting in a hardware store display toilet (a far cry from Jonze’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Her), but the result goes far beyond gross-out stupidity as it asks viewers to contemplate just why we are all so hellbent on kowtowing to a mass-produced existence.
As is the case for several of the franchise’s most famous bits, Jackass Forever revisits that display toilet stunt, this time at an outdoor garage sale where the team shocks browsers out of their post-lockdown complacency. Knoxville knows he and his fellow conspirators are getting old, but makes sure that his schtick remains ageless as the now gray-haired ringleader pushes every set piece to extremes. Yet, the raucous camaraderie the cast shares curtails the mean spiritedness that would make the enterprise misanthropic. The Jackass crew models inclusivity without fanfare, one of the reasons the latest film’s attempts at diversity by adding Rachel Wolfson as its first female cast member and African-American comedians Eric Manaka and Davon Lamar Wilson (as well as an extended guest appearance from Eric André) is so successful. All prove game, especially the film’s breakout Wolfson who shows up Jackass mainstay Steve-O on several occasions from scorpion botox to taking a taser to the tongue without making a peep.
Since it established its style by appropriating the skate video’s consumer grade camerawork and stunt-focused structure, Jackass has embraced a democratic mindset that may have landed a few idiot kids in the hospital, but provided a welcoming environment for anyone willing to go full punk rock. But the franchise has also long implicated its largely male audience for its own macho posturing through its unabashed focus on male nudity–this time with an ingenious gag involving Steve-O placing a queen bee on his penis and weathering the ensuing swarm.
In the end, the Jackass Forever team goes beyond merely completing another successful outing to create what is thus far the definitive pandemic movie. The end credits single out its COVID compliance team for their help in a special dedication, but the film exposes obsessive overprotection for the farce it is. Throughout the hidden camera sequences, unwitting participants wear their masks and faceshields lazily if at all, a slice of life that represents the attitudes of most Americans but is entirely absent in COVID comedies like 7 Days (2021) that rely on twee topicality or the obvious mockdown melodrama Together (2021) starring James McAvoy. Hollywood protocol dictates universal masking unless an actor is performing, but in its numerous scenes of the gang sitting around and jawing or engaging in non-COVID friendly stunts like securing a connected plastic terrarium to two cast members’ heads and forcing them to fend off a spider with their breath, Jackass Forever calls into question the true motivations behind such capricious rules as well as their effectiveness. Consequently, it invites its audience to ask where the performance ends and the masked downtime begins and how a compliance team makes that call when faced with the revelry of this bunch of counterculture masochists. The Jackass posse may be getting old, but like a late career John Wayne, its members stay in the game to shake us out of our groupthink stupor. Here’s hoping they hold off their ride into the sunset until our current moment has passed.
Jackass Forever is now playing in theatres.