It is a penis that wields mass destruction. And it is a penis that saves us all.
Inspired by one of the first things you see in the new film Jackass Forever, this is referring to the greater universe of Jackass—a playground of raunch, violence, and the beautiful buffoonery of masculinity. But what is Jackass, really, if not an exaggerated funhouse mirror to the reality of society: a group of idiots goof around doing dangerous and crass stunts; the world inexplicably laughs at them and rewards them for this behavior with success and fortune; and years later, at a pivotal inflection point of culture, we wonder if maybe these guys were geniuses all along.
As Jackass Forever, the latest film inspired by the MTV series of 22 years ago, hits theaters in the middle of a lingering pandemic and at a doomsday point for the theatrical box office, we wonder if we actually need them, too. Well, kick me in the groin and then let’s lose our breath laughing about it, because, you know what? We do. We really do.
It probably was always going to take a man’s penis to heal us as a nation. This is America, after all. But it’s almost poetic that the dongs in question belong to these guys, in the context of these stunts.
If we’re harping on the penis of it all, it’s because the film does. There are so many of them. (Bare asses, nipples, taints, and actual buttholes boast robust representation as well.)
Not that any of this is arousing. It is, however, unabashed. One could write a thesis on how the most aggro manifestations of heteronormative male behavior and machismo almost reliably overlap with the most flagrant displays of homoeroticism. But that’s neither here nor there in Jackass Forever, where the more pressing matter is that someone has to grab Preston Lacy’s testicles and pull them through the hole in the plywood so that they may be turned into a punching bag for tiny boxing gloves, the battering of which will then be played back in slow motion and projected onto a massive movie screen.
Jackass had humble beginnings. Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, and Wee-Man, as well as several legacy cast members who return—albeit a bit grayer, with more wrinkles, and certainly wearier—for Jackass Forever, started this whole thing by orchestrating body-bruising and repulsive vignettes with no seeming higher purpose than to make each other squeal with laughter.
Sometimes they’d test how much force a person’s balls could withstand. Sometimes they’d get in a ring and face-off with a bull. Once, one of them dressed as a mouse and crawled across a floor littered with mousetraps to get to a hunk of cheese. Later, this evolved into dressing up one of their scrotums as a mouse to tempt a live snake. Frequently, there would be poo involved. Often, the joke boils down simply to “here is a penis.”
The original videos from the series were so lo-fi, telegraphing a vibe that anybody could pull this off, that MTV had to start warning viewers not to attempt their own stunts, and certainly not to film them and send them into the network. But now there’s a Hollywood budget. Jackass Forever is bigger than ever. We’re getting production value. We’re getting storyline. We’re not just getting a penis. We’re getting a penis that is painted to look like Godzilla, terrorizing a city teeming with extras until a standoff ends with them all getting sprayed with its version of fire: a blast of never-ending cum. (The aforementioned opening scene.)
It is among the most thrilling cinematic experiences I’ve had in my lifetime.
I’m not being wry or snarky about this. When Jackass debuted, I was of the perfect age to think it was the absolute funniest thing in the world—which, well, it was. There’s no high-mindedness or overthinking here. This is entertainment at the basest level: Make the human body do ridiculous things and point a camera at it. I’m of the generation that lionized these men as heroes.
What that means 22 years later is intrinsic to the Jackass Forever experience. So much of it is the same, and the watching of it is the same, too. You want to hide under your chair in second-hand fear as a new cast member named Poopies attempts to kiss a snake. You can’t watch as a UFC heavyweight champ tests the fortitude of Ehren McGhehey’s cup. (A top softball pitcher and professional hockey player also get goes at it.) You will laugh until it hurts as Steve-O strips naked and clips a queen bee to his shaft and wriggles with discomfort as her hive begins to cover his penis like living underwear.
But what it means to get older, confront your mortality, and maybe regress—or at least laugh—in the face of it is a driving point to the film. Within seconds of frontman Johnny Knoxville’s appearance in the film’s first stunt, there’s a fart that makes everyone howl with laughter, until Knoxville interrupts with a cautious, “Are you filming my bald spot?” He giggles while introducing an updated version of one of the first-ever Jackass stunts—essentially, people getting hit in the balls—quipping, “Twenty years later, doing the same old shit.” Pontius sings a song about how the original cast paid their dues, so now it’s the new guard’s turn to abuse their bodies.
Not that there’s anyone who escapes the brutality. Jackass Forever is more transparent about the physical toll and danger of this phenomenon. You’ll see someone with their arm in a sling in the background of a shot, or being tended to by a medic after blacking out. By the end, bodies are all shades of black, blue, and purple. At one point, Knoxville is carried away from production in a stretcher.
Embrace the fun of life. Even make it for yourself, sure, as Jackass does. But there’s no escaping the toll. Reality is reality. Mortality is mortality.
I genuinely think Jackass Forever is going to be a hit, as much as a hit as there is in a pandemic. The four earlier films have made nearly half a billion dollars at the box office. But commercial appeal notwithstanding, there’s a spiritual draw. We’re a frustrated people. Because of the pandemic, we’re a caged people. We’re starved for the opportunity to feel and to let loose. We want to howl with laughter. Everything is so stressful and so serious. We want to be stupid. That’s what Jackass is all about.
Now more than ever, I’ve recognized in it and in these guys the desire to just be unleashed into the world. To be wanton. To be careless. To goof around with your friends and not have concerns about petty things like safety or repercussions or the social mores surrounding homophobia and homoeroticism. (Not to keep harping on it, but the straight men in this movie touched more dick in the span of 85 minutes—each other’s dicks—than I have in… well, let’s say some time.) What a blissful lack of insecurity, to relish and be so comfortable with exhibitionism.
It must be so invigorating to skip through the world with your penis out, be launched 40 feet into the air and crash land in a lake, to good-naturedly prank people, or to charge at a bull. The fantasy of reckless abandon and no rules has only grown more powerful in the time that Jackass has been in the world, with the franchise essentially in competition with itself to escalate its antics over the last 20 years. And in that regard, Jackass Forever is a crowning achievement.