‘Jackass: The Movie’: 20 years later, the era of the teenage dirtbag lives on, concussions be damned
The Jackass film franchise is now twenty years old. With four films under their belt (plus three extra bonus feature films and a handful of television show spin-offs), and a definitive return to the zeitgeist after this year’s release of their latest film, Jackass Forever, it seems that Jackass and its niche artistic offering — watching some real-life people partake in events so ridiculous and painful they are usually saved for Wile E. Coyote cartoons — can withstand the test of time, and of many cultural shifts.
Jackass: The Movie opens with our crew of dirtbag-skaters-turned-gross-out-stuntmen careening around in a gigantic shopping cart, flanked by giraffes and a collection of dusty explosions, all to the tune of “O Fortuna.” It is a practice in absurd overstimulation. They all mug giddily to camera and smack each other around, before taking falls, leaps, and hits the average person would spend their whole life avoiding. This opening is only a light taster for what is to come for the next hour and a half, as the men of Jackass present us with a grotesque selection of creatively painful and gnarly clips.
Jackass: The Movie hovers at a 49% approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes, with many critics of the time insisting that it could not possibly be deemed an actual film (or art of any form). However, 2022’s Jackass Forever sits at a healthy 85% approval rate, marking a change in the critical tides. It seems the world (especially the world of film criticism, the world of “serious” art), has finally finished taking its time catching up to the magic of Jackass. And to be clear we did, indeed, have to get on their level — Jackass has certainly not become any more mature or elevated in its content over time (thank God). Instead it simply patiently waited for the culture to embrace the gleeful, juvenile antics it always had to offer.
Now that we have been watching these men get the living snot kicked out of them in semi-regular intervals over the course of two decades, we can safely presume that most of the Jackass squad are simply some very lucky men with some extremely resilient heads and bodies.
But in 2002, as they made their big screen debut in Jackass: The Movie, these men seemed to be buoyed and protected by the invincibility and beauty of youth alone. Here, the Jackass group is young and beautiful — in their specific, grimy, teenage dirtbag way. Tan, tattooed, and stupid, clad in stuffed g-strings and ready to make a living off of making pain funny. It feels as if nothing could touch them — close-calls with alligators are to be shrugged off, the potential long-term health effects of a head split open by a boxing champion or a toy car slipped up your own butt are nothing compared to a good laugh with your buddies.
While Jackass’ beginnings stemmed from a brief and very popular stint on MTV, the Jackass boys were very excited about a shift to cinema for a handful of reasons — none of which were serious. At one moment in the film, the young, handsome resident Jackass skater, Bam Margera, gleefully explains that their ability to now swear onscreen is a fantastic opportunity for him to get his usually polite mom to say “fuck” on camera (he succeeds by planting a live alligator in their quiet suburban home). Perhaps slightly more seriously, the group was excited to have a bit more funding than before — though this funding appears to be mainly used for more absurd costumes, sillier sets, and wonkier ways to get hurt. To make the leap to cinema for Jackass was to simply be more ridiculous — funding and artistic freedoms were to be used for the modus operandi of severe silliness among friends at any cost.
That said, Jackass: The Movie is still made as cheap as can be relatively speaking — a testament to how creative the group was willing to get for a good gross-out on a tight budget. Even the big league stunts of today — the likes of wild bulls and brain hemorrhages — make me squirm and squeal less than the small-scale and horrific “Paper Cuts” stunt from the original film, in which a manila envelope slices open the webs of fingers, toes, and lips.
While even the most modern, well-funded iterations of Jackass still have the original charismatic hum that keeps myself and an ever-growing (and ever-diversifying) subsection of the culture tuning in, it’s undeniable that there is something magical and almost ephemeral about the sheer chaos of the first installment of the series. Jackass:The Movie has a sense of youthful mayhem to it that is perhaps impossible to recreate.
Nowadays, a handful of original members are gone. For some, this specific brand of show business was too exhausting, and it was necessary to step back. For others, the circumstances were more tragic — Ryan Dunn unfortunately passed away in 2011, and Bam Margera’s continuing struggles with substance use excluded him from being able to participate in the latest Jackass film. In their places, though, stand younger members who bring some exciting diversification and alternate creative paths to the group. Steve-O is now fifteen years sober and touting the values of veganism. Johnny Knoxville (now gray-haired and referred to by Jackass newbie Rachel Wolfson as “Silver Foxville”) borders on being a patron saint for certain queer communities, and has more than a few young women online running detailed and delightful fan Twitters and pages for him.
It is good to see the jackasses grow into themselves, good to see them survive and even thrive. One does not watch the original film and imagine that living the way they did was sustainable.
And yet there is something almost dizzying about watching a twenty-something year old Knoxville soothe a severe concussion with a sip from a 40 instead of medical care, or to cringe as a young Steve-O snorting a wad of wasabi with a finesse that can only have come from his well-documented and discussed substance use habits.
It is probably for the better that they do not create chaos with quite the intensity that they once did, but if there’s no changing the past, then it feels right to admit that there is something singularly delightful about watching the beautiful mayhem that is Jackass: The Movie.
Jackass: The Movie was released by Paramount Pictures on October 25, 2022. It is currently available to stream on Paramount+.
Photo: Ben Zo/Paramount Pictures