Picture the scene; a slow-motion wide shot on a city street. Gradually emerging into frame is an out-of-control vehicle. Its passengers desperately cling to it as explosions send debris hurtling towards them. A hit forces some to relinquish their grip and get a face full of asphalt. The others simply wait, resigned to the fact some sort of crunching impact is the only thing that will stop this wild ride. This could almost be a white-knuckle moment from the latest Hollywood blockbuster, were it not for the fact that the vehicle is a giant shopping trolley and its crazy cargo the cast of Jackass: The Movie – gleefully smashing each other over the head and relishing every second.
This just about sets us up for what is in store in the rest of the film – Johnny Knoxville (the sado-masochistic host), Bam Margera (professional skateboarder and ultimate problem child), Steve-O (clown school graduate and volunteer for the most dangerous and painful scenes) and their band of hedonistic homies performing ingeniously moronic stunts and gross-out gags. No plot and no real point but just a bigger budget and uncut version of the popular MTV show.
Stunts in the film include: a tight rope walk over an alligator pit with a piece of raw chicken dangling from Steve-O’s pants, testing bullet-proof vests, trampolining into a ceiling fan, human ten-pin bowling and off-road tattooing. So this could be viewed as a new low for entertainment and a landmark of deprivation for the movie industry (especially considering the box office returns for Jackass far outweigh those of producer/writer Spike Jonze’s other acclaimed project, Adaptation). But this is reality slapstick for the 21st century, where the pain is genuine and the stunts (though they claim to be performed by professionals) are life-threateningly dangerous.
The slapstick of the early silent cinema companies, such as Keystone Studios, was a classic example of physical pain getting the laughs. Pie fights, car crashes,and chases, all performed by amateurs, were incredibly popular. Similarly, falling down manholes, standing under a precariously placed pot of paint, and all the other staged ‘accidents’ in the Laurel and Hardy films are based on the fundamentally comic appeal of seeing someone hurt themselves in the name of the movies. Why do you think clowns started doing the old ‘slip on a banana skin’ routine in the first place? With Jackass, the custard pie in the face may have been replaced by the more original bowling ball in the nuts, but the effect is much the same.
You can also hardly accuse it of being a by-product of the MTV generation. The channel originally condensed varying styles of music into easily digestible bite-sized videos, interspersed with programmes like the ironically titled Real World – which tested the staying power of teenagers forced to live with each other (and, of course, with the substantial film crew required to make the programme). On the other hand, the do-it-yourself improvisation of Jackass only took a lot of imagination, bravery and a video camera. The predictability of MTV’s format was blown apart by a cheap, homemade series that was deliberately inclusive of its audience (read: teenage boys) through a riot of insane stunts that could be performed by any idiot with the guts to do them.
Let’s take a step back here. Jackass: the Movie is no cinematic triumph, given its frequent slips into self-indulgence and its total disregard for narrative structure, taste and technical integrity. In fact some of the stunts become difficult to watch when blown up on the big screen – especially the more faecal ones. Essentially this is a childish ensemble of gags, pieced together by a group of men stuck in adolescence who never got over the comic nature of poop. Steve-O gets a tattoo of himself smiling with thumbs up, saying ‘Yeah dude, I rock’ which spans his entire back, just because it made his friends laugh. Meanwhile, other members of the crew hide in the bushes of a golf course, firing off an air-horn just as posh American WASPy types were about to tee off. These guys may be childish, and they might be morons, but you can’t help but be entertained.