This merry band of clowns, physical comedians each and every one, may have peaked with the outrageous, hilarious Jackass Number Two, the first installment in the popular TV/DVD/theatrical franchise to reckon with Father Time. The boys are even older here, of course, but Jackass 3D doesn’t feel quite as candid or revealing as the previous installment. Instead, it goes straight for the gross-out — I don’t recall Jackass ever being so fixated on bodily secretions and excretions as it is here. (They shit! They sweat! They piss! On each other!)
The gross-out has never been my favorite part of the Jackass experience, although I’ve always thought the homoerotic overtones of some of the stunts were sly, and could maybe be used as a cudgel against cultural taboos having to do with the male body. At any rate, now that the jackasses are older and presumably wiser, they’re smart enough to abandon many of the potentially bone-busting stunts that used to be their bread and butter in favor of the gag-inducing stuff (like the poo slingshot, in which Steve-O is locked inside a overflowing port-a-john that’s flung high in the air and then comes crashing back to earth) that will get an easier laugh and probably won’t tear anybody’s urethra. (Johnny Knoxville is apparently still reliant on twice-daily catheterization after a groin-punishing Evel Knievel tribute stunt-gone-wrong in early 2008. Yes, there is footage, though it doesn’t appear in this film.) I can't blame them for re-calibrating their formula, but Jackass 3D is (maybe miraculously) the first one of these films that starts to feel redundant.
Happily, they haven’t abandoned real physical comedy — the giant, spring-loaded hand that swings into a kitchen doorway at about 100 miles per hour to flatten unwary visitors is evidence of that. So is a wonderful segment, apparently shot undercover in a dive bar, that involves a staged fight, the ersatz cops who try to break it up, and eventually the phony paramedics who haul away the bodies. (The opening sequence, a lovingly choreographed slo-mo tableaux of crude stunt humor comin' at ya, is as good an argument as I’ve yet seen for 3D film production.) It’s the stunts and pranks that I really like. The violent humor, with Johnny Knoxville and his band of cheerful idiots throwing themselves, time and again, into harm’s way, reminds me, yes, of the characters from Looney Tunes cartoons who take all manner of abuse and then hop right up again, eager for another go. But it also takes me back to seven-year-old me, who used to stand on the wrought-iron railing of the front porch of the house I grew up in, flinging myself at the ground below over and over again like a brain-damaged moron, all the while imagining myself to be Spider-Man or Superman or some damn fiction.
I don’t know how wealthy any of the jackasses are, but they’re movie stars, and that must count for something. (Knoxville recently claimed that he’s paid largely on a sliding scale based on the films’ grosses, which sounds about right.) But there’s no fantasy life here. The show is what it is, and if the previous film was the one in which we felt the boys getting over the hump of maturity, this is the one where they resolve, band of brothers, to live in knockabout camaraderie until their audience stops buying tickets. In its plethora of piss and shit, asses and dicks, the Jackass franchise has meaning, all right. What’s it all add up to? It’s an ode to the increasingly fragile male flesh on display. I’m tempted to call it an epic work of performance art, but really it’s just a celebration of what it means to be human.