Maybe it’s damning irony. Maybe we’re all the better for it. Whatever the case, it’s incredible that for the past two decades, the most towering monument to suffering in the history of the visual medium has also brought forth some of the purest expressions of joy captured within the human experience. It’s a long way out from its inception as an MTV show, and its principal stars are perhaps all too old to keep doing this, but the latest entry into the series, Jackass Forever, proves that the Jackass franchise still innately understands the beauty in pain the way nothing else does.
Here’s a brief summary of what exactly happens in Jackass Forever: people are smacked, sucker-punched, electrocuted, stung, rocketed into lighting fixtures, doused in gallons of pig semen, psychologically tortured, and in one bit that’s especially nauseating (even for cameraman Lance Bangs, who appears in the film so he can vomit in disgust), a guy accidentally soils his pants attempting a Dirty Dancing-esque lift. Genitals, in particular, are treated the way I assume a prime Mike Tyson would’ve treated his punching bags — when they’re not being pummeled by particularly elaborate devices, bit by a turtle, decked by hockey pucks, stamped by pogo sticks, pecked at by a vulture, or swarmed by bees, they’re getting absolutely decimated by one of the hardest hitters alive.
Enduring even a quarter of this sounds like punishment ripped from the notebooks of Marquis De Sade; in Jackass Forever, all of this incessant brutality is taken in good fun, accompanied by fitful spells of on-screen laughter, toothy shit-eating grins (not literally — fortunately), and a truly heartwarming sense of camaraderie. The ability to transform living nightmares into moments of genuine warmth remains untouched, the sort of thing that only Jackass is really able to do. Furthermore, there’s something genuinely delightful in the way Jackass Forever opens up their formula to younger, more wide-eyed test dummies. In welcoming this bevy of acolytes and admirers into the fold, the film feels livelier, even more earnest in its delights, free from the constraints of becoming a legacy act.
Among these new cast members: Zach Holmes, a YouTube stuntman (and an example of Jackass’s influence in the Internet Age), who in Jackass Forever, hang-glides into a cactus plant. Rachel Wolfson, another YouTube creator with the distinction of being the first woman to join the crew, offers a long-overdue counterpoint to the “boys club” attitude commonly associated with Jackass; she licks a taser a few times, then takes several stings from a venomous scorpion to her lips like it’s nothing. (Wolfson might be the most infallible member of the cast, a pretty impressive achievement amongst these guys who have dedicated their lives to copious amounts of pain).
My favorite of these new characters is a surfer who goes by the name “Poopies,” perhaps the wildest card of the bunch. Quite honestly, he’s everywhere here, but my favorite part is the bit where he’s annihilated by a miniature tank that pelts him with paintballs.
Of course, to affirm Jackass as a cultural institution of sorts, there’s no shortage of familiar faces here. Among the usual cameos — Spike Jonze, Rob Dyrdek, Tony Hawk — the guest list includes rapper/annoying guy Machine Gun Kelly, who gets smacked off a stationary bike by a giant hand into a swimming pool; Eric Andre, who gets hit with an uppercut by a food truck selling cold-brew coffee (something that’ll hopefully happen a lot more often if he continues to shill for NFT’s); and Tyler, The Creator, who’s reunited with fellow Odd Future buddy (and new castmate) Jasper Dolphin before getting electrocuted as he plays the piano.
It’s a surreal, truly gratifying thing to see all these people here; there is perhaps no better testament to the doors that Jackass forcefully blustered its way through. Without Jackass, MGK doesn’t have “Wild Boy,” the trashy, Steve-O-name-dropping frat-rap hit that made him a star (perhaps not a good thing, but a thing regardless!) Without Jackass, there is no Eric Andre Show, no Loiter Squad, probably no [Adult Swim] either. It’s admittedly a little ridiculous at first glance to call a prank show where dudes get hit in the nuts one of the most important cultural touchstones of the past decade, but there’s no denying the extent to which Jackass opened the gates for all the weirder, more subversive strains of comedy to emerge. It’s hard to imagine a pop-culture landscape — especially in the age of the internet — that isn’t imbued with Jackass's distinct brand of madness or its unabashed, juvenile silliness. Jackass Forever essentially brings the chickens home to roost, a disarmingly heartening experience that makes for one of the most genuinely uplifting theatrical releases in recent memory.
Of course, this updated crew of torture victims isn’t just Jackass marveling at its influence; a lot of it comes from a place of necessity. Past the tragic death of Ryan Dunn in 2011 and the cataclysmic falling out with Bam Margera, most of Jackass’s familiar faces have been getting battered into submission for well over two decades — the youngest of Jackass’s core cast, “Danger” Ehren McGehey, is 45 years old. (A brief side note: Ehren, by all accounts, is the MVP here. His junk is positively annihilated in the “Cup Test” challenges, and he’s still able to take being nearly bitten by an actual brown bear, while strapped to a chair, adorned with chunks of salmon, and drizzled with honey, like a champ). Age, along with the constant physical harm, has very much taken a toll on this ragtag group of masochists, even if their headstrong attitude and rousing enthusiasm don’t reveal it.
There is no testament to that sentiment like Johnny Knoxville, who even after all these years, remains the beating heart, swollen testicles, and undeterred soul of Jackass.
In terms of performers who truly put their bodies on the line for the sake of entertainment, I genuinely don’t think I’ve witnessed anyone as utterly committed as Knoxville. He is a performer whose complete, wanton disregard for his own well-being puts him in an upper echelon with the likes of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Like those two, he is easily one of the greatest physical comedians of all time, a peerless showman whose bravado is rivaled only by his sheer ballsiness.
In Jackass Forever, even if Knoxville’s mostly content with taking the back seat and serving as the film’s sadistic Master of Ceremonies, he still manages to cram in a few truly breathtaking acts of self-destruction. In one, he’s shot five stories into the air out of a cannon and into a lake, wearing a suit of feathers like a modern-day Icarus. Apparently, when Knoxville crashed into the water, he landed so hard on his legs that he couldn’t sit on hard surfaces for weeks afterward.
In another, he’s once again sent flying, but this time it’s by a raging bull (a frequent character of its own within the Jackass universe). While he’s attempting a magic trick, the bull charges him head-on, flinging his body up in the air, flipping him one-and-a-half times, and landing him forcefully on the side of his head.
For someone who has spent a lifetime gloriously defying death, it’s perhaps Knoxville at his most poetically, devastatingly mortal. He is 49 years old, and he’s just been knocked out completely cold for four minutes, having suffered a broken wrist, a broken rib, a concussion, and a brain hemorrhage. In the months that follow, his neurologist will essentially tell him his body can’t handle any more of these sorts of stunts. It is his curtain call, the culmination of his life’s work, the pinnacle of a horrific art he’s sacrificed everything for. Still, because he’s the greatest goddamn showman alive, he’s able to crack a joke as he’s carried away on a stretcher: “that bull didn’t like fuckin’ magic.”
In a film like Jackass Forever, a film that’s maybe as deeply cathartic as anything I’ve seen in theaters in recent memory, I don’t think there’s any moment that tops the audible sigh of relief that everyone around Knoxville lets out after hearing him say that. It’s not so much a sigh as an outpour of laughter, a release of all this pent-up concern, felt through these whispered half-jokes and wordlessly worried glances. It is a warm, collective exchange, a display of support and encouragement that serves as a reminder of Jackass’s most resonant strength.
Though Jackass appears to be about people doing wildly dangerous, utterly terrifying things to themselves, it is first and foremost about a bond, about a gang of misfits, freaks, and weirdos all united in their insurmountable bouts of suffering and the joy that follows. It is a breathtaking, communal thing that, perhaps by some grace of divine intervention, has endured all these years, mostly intact against all the conceivable odds. To see a film like Jackass Forever succeed the way it has, even in such uncertain times for movies and the world at large, is like watching a shooting star: it is a fleeting thing, a flaming ball of gas (literally — they finally manage to set a fart on fire here, a thing they’ve spent years attempting to do), hurtling into a horizon it may never return from. Yet, in a beautiful act of cosmic fate, it is here. Right now, in this blissful communion we share with the screen, it is here. If for that, and that alone, we should all be so grateful.