Midway through the new movie Jackass Forever — the first film in the long-running stunts-and-scatology series since 2010’s Jackass 3D — former skateboarder and original Jackass cast member Chris Pontius addresses one of the fandom’s big concerns for the future. “A lot of people ask, what will Jackass be like once we’re older?” he says. He pauses with a wry smile and says, tongue-in-cheek, “Well, it’ll get more mature.” Then he performs yet another stunt involving his groin. If the Jackass crew, headed up as always by director Jeff Tremaine and star Johnny Knoxville, have dedicated themselves to anything, it’s staying young at heart. Their latest film is an uproarious, adolescent, and at times nauseating display of how time won’t affect your ability to have fun if you don’t let it.
Jackass Forever isn’t a sentimental movie, though. Oh no, it begins with a parody Godzilla sequence where Godzilla (played by Pontius’ penis) is destroying a miniature town by ejaculating on it, until it’s attacked by the giant turtle kaiju Gamera, played by an actual turtle. The close-up of the turtle’s sharp beak spearing Pontius’ flesh is just the first of the many genital-related stunts that make up Jackass Forever.
The film’s stunts have obvious things in common with the ones from previous Jackass episodes, movies, and specials, but the team gets to try more elaborate stunts, constructed with a larger budget. The simple stunt from 2002’s Jackass: The Movie, where snowboarder Ehren McGhehey spins really fast on a playground merry-go-round until he pukes, has been reimagined as an elaborate setpiece where several cast members are strapped into a spinning ride in the desert while chugging milk. As they vomit, gunners in camo shoot paintballs at them. One of the paintballs, naturally, hits Jackass’ most famed daredevil and rowdiest member Steve-O straight in the dick.
A Jackass classic, “The Bungee Wedgie,” in which filmmaker and podcaster Raab Himself jumps off a tree with a makeshift bungee attached to his underpants, is refashioned into the “Triple Wedgie,” where two heavier cast members, Zach Holmes and Preston Lacy, jump from an elevated platform with their underwear attached to bungees, so their weight triggers a pulley system that violently yanks up the underwear of longtime Jackass co-star Jason “Wee Man” Acuña.
Farts, feces, semen, nipples, anything that might make viewers lose their minds with laughter — these are the stars of Jackass Forever. The way these juvenile elements can make anyone of any age laugh is a tribute to the immutable charms of youthful humor, which has defined the franchise since its inception. Even after 20 years in the cultural eye, the Jackass crew scoffs at a more refined sense of humor. Instead, they set their sights on just how long they can keep digging into their distinct brand of adolescent-inspired stunt comedy before they become too old to weather it.
Jackass Forever is a testament to how much the Jackass series appeals to viewers’ morbid fascination with pain and humiliation, with the kind of physical exposure and vulnerability that turns into an opportunity for people to laugh at and ultimately love themselves. Some viewers may see it all as crass exploitation, but for the Jackass crew, it’s a series of cathartic moments.
In a primitive version of the now-popular trend of YouTube reaction videos, the series and movies always make sure to turn the camera away from the agony of the person doing the stunt, and focus on the cast as they watch and wince. The conceit feels like a way of assuring viewers that what the Jackass crew is doing is okay, and our laughter is too. It’s a demonstration of disbelief and relief, a way to make our weakest, most painful moments into triumphs.
The crew’s age and the acknowledgement of time passing informs the stunts in Jackass Forever, not by making them less insane, but rather by testing how well this group of grey-haired, middle-aged men can match their youthful escapades. One stunt was conceived for Jackass: The Movie, but never filmed: Knoxville was supposed to be launched out of a cannon and into a lake, where Rip Taylor, sitting in a boat, would declare, “This is the end.” In Jackass Forever, Knoxville, wearing Icarus wings, finally takes that plunge.
Many of the cast were in their 20s when the first Jackass TV show aired, with Steve-O as one of the group’s most daring stunt performers. He’s become a fan favorite over the years for his relentless mission to hurt himself in various ways, even outside of Jackass. He’s stapled his scrotum to his leg for fun, broke nearly 20 of his teeth, and received third-degree burns on 15% of his body. When asked why he does what he does, Steve-O replies that it’s his way of facing mortality. “I wanted to leave video behind that would outlive me,” he says. In Jackass Forever, a nearly 50-year-old Steve-O still engages in the art of pain (at one point placing a nest full of bees on his genitals), but he lets the younger cast members do the heavier stunts.
A few of those bits are especially painful-looking, like McGhehey’s “Cup Test,” something Knoxville first conceived for the Jackass TV show. The earliest iteration involved a target donning a groin protector before getting his junk punched by children, hit with tennis balls, and bashed with a sledgehammer. In the latest version of the test, McGhehey puts his nether regions on the line against UFC heavyweight champion Francis Nganou, Olympic softball pitcher Danielle O’Toole, and a pogo stick. (I can’t lie, that last one had me hiding under my seat. I simply couldn’t watch it. I had an easier time sitting through the Saw movies.)
The stunts in Jackass Forever all seem motivated by the participants’ urge to defy age. Like the human ramp, which involves several cast members supporting a wooden ramp with their bodies, so a skateboarder and biker can launch off them. Or the bicycle race where Steve-O squares off in a pedaling competition against rapper Machine Gun Kelly to see who can smack the other into a pool with a giant hand. Steve-O spells out the spirit of these stunts directly to Kelly: “I may not be as young or as good-looking as you, but I can ride!”
For all the film’s attempts at maintaining the same subversive verve and violent energy as the previous films, the participants’ age does make unmistakable and humbling appearances, especially for Knoxville. In an interview with GQ, he mentions that a bullfight stunt that gave him temporary brain damage made him realize his Jackass career was coming to a close. At the end of the Icarus cannon-launch stunt, Knoxville is limp and unresponsive, and the entire cast covers their mouths, suddenly no longer amused. But the mood lightens almost immediately as Knoxville comes to. Heaved into an ambulance, he smiles and offers a thumbs-up.
The moment recalls the end of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where the seriously injured Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) jovially tells his former boss Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) to bring bagels when he comes to visit in the hospital. Knoxville is the closest thing to Cliff Booth we have in real life — a born stuntman with an irresistible coolness and a mischievous smirk. He’s accepted his own age and mortality, but can Jackass be the same without him?
With new blood like Jasper Dolphin, Eric Manaka, Rachel Wolfson, Sean “Poopies” McInerney, and Zach Holmes joining the cast, Jackass is in a state of nostalgic remembrance for its older members’ legacy while signaling a shift to a new era. For the older cast members, the Jackass process is a little more controlled now. Stylistically, there’s less off-the-cuff guerrilla-style winging it, and more engineering and precautionary measures. While we still get a few sequences where unsuspecting furniture salesmen are flummoxed by Knoxville’s Bad Grandpa character, the former displays of public reckless abandon are toned down. This also could be an acknowledgement of cultural shifts. Being an asshole in public was a novelty in the early 2000s. It doesn’t play the same way today.
The camerawork also reflects a greater sense of control of image, replacing previous iterations’ handheld shaky-cam aesthetics with a polished high-definition stage production — though the tradition of famed Jackass cameramen like Lance Bangs puking after watching a cast member soil his pants continues unabated. The Jackass franchise has always embraced its low-budget television aesthetics, even in the first two movies, which felt like extended episodes of the show. Television has changed, though, turning into a medium that mimics cinema. In the same way, Jackass has altered its visual aesthetic to match the polish kids and teenagers today expect even from low-budget productions. It’s a necessary and positive move, as a new generation of fans hear about the legend of Jackass and begin to embrace the debauchery.
Nostalgia is in vogue in cinema, and recently, franchises that reach back to the millennial generation’s youth, like the Matrix movies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have begun to confront age, time, and legacies in a boldly meta style. Jackass Forever follows suit with a spirit that remains just as effervescent as it was at the turn of the millennium. The franchise has been self-aware since its inception, and the latest film’s retreads of classic stunts are both remembrances and innovations. There are no rules to Jackass, except maybe the laws of physics, and the series’ insistence on going bigger and topping itself while also respecting its past has helped it remain fresh in fans’ minds, while also reminding them why they loved it in the first place. Even as its stars get older, their onscreen joy at pushing their limits remains the same.
And the crew’s willingness to move forward has helped keep this franchise alive for more than 20 years, even under the constant threat of termination. The TV series was canceled after only three seasons after Senator Joe Lieberman publicly decried it as a bad influence on children and teens. Steve-O’s drug addiction jeopardized the production of Jackass: Number Two. Ryan Dunn’s death in a car crash after Jackass 3D left a crater in the lives of many of the cast members — most notably his closest friend, skateboarder Bam Margera, whose relationship with the team and the franchise ended over his issues with drug abuse. With the litany of trials and tribulations the cast has gone through, it’s no wonder Jackass movies don’t come around often. After more than a decade, Jackass Forever feels like meeting old friends after a long time apart. After decades of coming out on top again and again in spite of every obstacle, deliberately placed or otherwise, Jackass Forever may be the first time in the series where the original cast can see a finish line in the distance.
Jackass Forever launches in theaters on Feb. 4.