At this point, I suspect you already know if you're a fan of "Jackass" or not.
After all, this is the tenth year they've been working together. When I say "they," I'm referring to the strange conglomeration of personalities that, taken as a whole, constitutes what we know as "Jackass." That includes Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, "Danger" Ehren, Preston Lacy, Jason "Wee Man" Acuna, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Dave Englund, Spike Jonze, and Jeff Tremaine, although it's not limited to them. It's hard to believe that they've gotten a full decade of media life out of stunts that basically consist of either hitting each other, making each other do things that will make them throw up, or putting life and limb in harm's way. Add some boners and poop, and that's pretty much it.
And yet they had their premiere this week at the Museum Of Modern Art.
Why is that? What is it about "Jackass" that transcends the description of the most basic nature of their work? This third film reinvigorates the cast and the creative team in a number of ways, and understanding what it was that happened that made the film work in a way that puts it on par with the best episodes of the original show is key to understanding their appeal and importance overall.
"Jackass" is all about unleashed id, and there is a sense of liberation that underscores the biggest laughs because it's hard to believe anyone ever pointed a camera at this thing that's making you howl. The addition of two new technical tools to their bag of tricks, as well as the new-found sobriety of Steve-O and, by extension, the rest of the cast means there's an energy this time out that makes the whole enterprise feel fresh. Obviously, the title "Jackass 3D" explains the focus this time, which is playing with the new 3D technology in a number of stomach-churning sketches, but just as impressive is the way Tremaine incorporated the Phantom camera, a slow-motion rig that shoots 1000 frames per second, allowing for the absolute clearest slow-motion footage of all time. Combine the two, and you're seeing things no one has ever seen before… things I'm not sure anyone ever needed to see… and that sense of pure experimentation is a sort of a buzz.
But the sobriety thing plays into it, too, because when you're watching these guys throw themselves into a stunt with reckless abandon, knowing that they're terrified because they're going to feel every single thing that happens and there won't be anything to numb them… that's funny. I feel horrible confessing that, but it's true. The more it hurts, or the more terrifying something is, the funnier the payoff. And there are some gags they've devised this time that I can't imagine being part of. "The Beehive Tetherball" or "The Invisible Man" or "Electric Avenue" work as well as they do because of the inherent pucker factor to each of them. Even one of the laziest gags in the movie, playing off Bam Margera's fear of snakes, works as well as it does because of Bam's pure animal fear. By the moment we see Steve-O shaking in fear before a sketch, miserably asking the existential question, "Why do I have to be Steve-O?", I think "Jackass 3D" has taken its place as one of the finest moments from the entire series so far.
Although this film is on the far edge of the R-rating, just as the first two were, this one seems less pervasively filthy than the second film. There's a willingness to be silly that has been missing from "Jackass" for a while that is back with a vengeance this time. Another thing that's different is the unity on display. For years now, "Jackass" has been a collection of smaller groups within the main group, which is not uncommon in any large comedy collective like this. Shows like "Viva La Bam" and "WildBoyz" didn't help, as the guys weren't geographically together at all. Here, they seem to spend most of the film together again, giving each guy an audience during the various bits, and it's infectious. It feels like a party again.
I think "Jackass" stands apart from similar shows and imitators because of the particular personalities involved, and because of the surreal sensibility that has always been such a big part of the show. Anyone can do a physical stunt, but these guys always build a context around the joke that takes it two or three steps beyond. And during the closing moments of the film, as they essentially unleash a soundstage apocalypse, leading into a closing credits sequence set to Weezer's "Memories" that features footage from the full decade they've been shooting, there's a poignance I wouldn't have expected from "Jackass." Ever. I think it's because we've watched these guys get older without growing up one little bit, and since we can't all get away with that, there is a freedom and, yes, a beauty to watching someone else pull it off.
Every time the cast of "Jackass" gets kicked in the balls, remember that. They're taking that nut shot for you. And I hope they keep doing it until Knoxville doesn't need old man make-up anymore.
"Jackass 3D" opens everywhere today.
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