Twenty years later, Jackass: The Movie continues to give us 85 blissful minutes of nonstop laughter through extreme pain.
I do not deny that Jackass: The Movie is one of the most inappropriate movies ever conceived. It’s a vile mesh of some of the most dangerous and puerile stunts ever created by a human being, and those looking for refined cinema should steer away from the first movie and the entire franchise altogether. And I’m clearly not here to convince people who have a strong and negative opinion of the film, and their subsequent installments, to change their minds. Instead, I’m just here to tell you all what Jackass: The Movie means to me and why I think it’s one of the greatest comedies ever made.
The movie has no connective tissue or plot. Instead, it’s 85 minutes of one extremely dangerous stunt after another. All of them are transitioned by constant fade-outs, which briefly alleviate our state of insanity as we observe Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Wee Man, Preston Lacy, Dave England, and Ehren McGhehey doing what no sane human being would ever think of, just for the kick of it. Whether it’s eating a urine-filled snow cone, putting a toy car in a rectum just to bamboozle radiologists, or, the most underrated prank of them all, blowing an airhorn as golfers are teeing off, the Jackass crew constantly defy any sense of rational thought and authority, while mixing street pranks and adolescent stunts as if they all played an extreme version of “Truth or Dare,” without the “truth” part.
There’s something so pure about seeing these individuals deliberately inflict pain upon themselves that no other sketch comedy film can replicate, and that’s the camaraderie that the entire gang has together. Most of the movie’s stunts end with Johnny Knoxville’s audibly loud laughs, provoking a frenzy of laughter from everyone involved. The audience always feels like they’re part of the extended Jackass family, through Knoxville’s commentary on the prank, interventions from director Jeff Tremaine, writer Spike Jonze or deliberately filming cameramen puking their guts out while the cast is paper cutting themselves in the feet, hands, and mouth. They’re not just best friends spending quality time together destroying their bodies. They’re also constructing a bond over each stunt and prank they conceive, which makes the viewing experience strangely feel more carefree than us being grossed out all the time.
Don’t get me wrong: Jackass gets very gross from time to time, and a bit too extreme for my taste, but the constant laughter from the cast and crew makes the entire tension of an Alligator Tightrope, for example, dissipate itself and makes a somewhat reckless stunt feel fun. Because nothing’s funnier than performing a stunt that could very well kill you if you’re not careful while seeing everyone around you laugh their guts off. And you start enjoying the ride even if you may look away when the movie goes into extreme gross-out territory.
But the symphony of laughter also makes us want to look because the camerawork always puts us at the center of the bit, giving us a better account of the joke than if we were on the set. The proliferation of digital cameras also allows Tremaine and Knoxville to use ingeniously hidden cameras (such as one concealed in sunglasses) and insert nimble cameras in angles we likely wouldn’t have the privilege of seeing if the film was shot on celluloid. We’re disgusted at the sight of someone eating their waste inside a snow cone or snorting wasabi up their nose but can’t stop looking in utter disbelief. You almost want to pinch yourself and think that this couldn’t have possibly been filmed and then released in theatres for the world to see, but you are seeing something that can (and will) never be replicated, at least not like this.
The days of Jackass: The Movie were the ones where the show was at its apex. The incredible success of the MTV series led Paramount to finance the movie, as a continuation of what was established in the TV series, but more outrageous, since there’s lots of leeway for an R-rating. F-bombs and other curse words don’t have to be bleeped out. And most importantly, you can get away with lots of things with an R-rating before it reaches the NC-17 level. They were also the days when the cast was on good terms with each other. Ryan Dunn was alive, Bam Margera involved his parents (who are incremental parts of Number Two and 3D’s best running gags) into the mix and wasn’t threatening the cast and crew of Jackass Forever to the point where Tremaine had to get a restraining order against him after the cast member was fired for breaching his contract and breaking his sobriety.
Seeing Bam in his prime, waking up his parents with fireworks in their bedroom, and having the time of his life with them, brings a tear to my eye, knowing what happened with him afterward and the rift he caused through his behavior with Forever’s main cast. It was the time when Bam was Bam, having fun with everyone, being in on the gag when he had to, and developing a bond with his best friends that slowly transformed itself into a close-knitted family when the third installment came out. Being invested in Jackass: The Movie’s elaborate gut-wrenching pranks also means being involved in the characters’ shenanigans and seeing their personality slowly develop through the jokes they do to themselves or whatever crazy idea they come up with next.
There’s nothing more spectacular in a movie that blends the improvisation and fly-on-the-wall cinematography of cinéma vérité with the most insane sketches possible, coupled with the most idiotic and dangerous stunts you can possibly think of, than seeing a family come together and have fun. Jackass has no plot and no strong moral to convey: it’s just 85 minutes of adults who love to bathe in adolescent behavior and purposefully harm themselves for the “shits and giggles” of it. And it’s beautiful. Everyone has fun; everyone laughs whenever something crazy happens because that’s their survival instinct to prevent them from throwing up, or worse, passing out.
No other person than Jeff Tremaine, Johnny Knoxville, and Spike Jonze could’ve ever conceived something as unbelievable as Jackass. It’s a franchise that not only celebrates fun in the most bewildering way possible but shows us that the only thing that ever matters in life are the friends we have fun with and the family we create when we’re closer together. And having lived through two years of an ongoing pandemic that stripped us from seeing anyone physically for prolonged periods, Jackass feels like the perfect antidote to not only cure us of isolation and anxiety but to remind us all that family and friendship matter in this twisted and unpredictable game called life. Sure, they may go to severe extremes along the way, but the cast’s free spirit always remains intact, even if they’ve broken every limb possible by the end of it. To have a form of colorful characters laughing their asses off and having the time of their life injuring themselves, as Bong Joon-ho aptly said, “To me, that’s cinema.” And you will never convince me otherwise.