It’s no longer a shock, or even much of a surprise, to see full-frontal male nudity in a reckless youth comedy. But in “Jackass Forever,” it’s not just that there’s a whole lotta full frontal; by the end of the film, the nutsacks of half the cast members have begun to feel like family. The movie opens with a “Godzilla” parody, in which the residents of New York run screaming from the sight of a hulking dino reptile. Except that the shots of the giant beast were created on a miniature mock-up of Manhattan, and the green lizard king — as we’re shown in a setup shot — is actually the penis and scrotum of Chris Pontius, bedecked with a fake head and platelets. When people talk about the glory of experiencing movies on the big screen, I’m not sure if having this thing in your face for five minutes is exactly what they had in mind. In case you’re wondering, the sequence ends with a climax (and no, I don’t mean a suspenseful high point).
The parade of male junk, and the abuse of it, doesn’t stop there. “Jackass Forever” revives the Cup Test, which was featured in the first “Jackass” movie, where Johnny Knoxville’s private parts, covered by a thin cup, were whacked in a variety of ways, starting with a line-up of school kids kicking them as hard as they could. In the new film, it’s Ehren McGheney who gets his rocks offed. His genitals are assaulted by a pogo stick, a softball pitcher who tosses the ball at rocket speed, and, finally, the heavyweight boxer Francis Ngannou, who has the most powerful right hook ever recorded. In a variation on that moment, we’re given closeups of Preston Lacy’s scrotum hanging down from a small hole, where it gets pummeled by a tiny pair of boxing gloves.
Then there’s the mighty Steve-O, who wears his prosthetic front tooth like a war medal, and who engages in a stunt where he stands, naked, as a small box holding a queen bee is hung from his member, so that the buzzing swarm of bees from her hive can cluster onto that same dick, until it looks like an entire swaying bag of bees is hanging off it. Is Steve-O screaming because he’s in agony, because he’s in fear, or because he’s enjoying whatever sensation he’s experiencing? Maybe all three.
“Jackass” first launched on MTV in 2000, with “Jackass: The Movie” arriving two years later, and there have been two “Jackass” movies since (not counting the spin-offs like “Bad Grandpa”). The last one, “Jackass 3D,” was released 12 years ago. Johnny Knoxville is now 50, Steve-O and Chris Pontius are 47, Dave England is 52, Wee Man is 48, but they and the rest of the team have not slacked off in their mission to create what are basically the world’s most stupidly elaborate frat-house hazing stunts, and to stage them with a juvenile masochistic fervor that lies somewhere between psychotic and religious. That they’re still at it in middle age is to say that these dudes are no longer just Jackassing. They’re fighting for their right to party. They’re raging against the dying of the balls.
Like everything else, a “Jackass” movie looks different now simply for being the same. “Jackass” once occupied what seemed like the lowliest possible place on the pop-culture totem pole. But the 22 years of the 21st century since the dawn of “Jackass” have been marked, in many ways, by the garish fakery of so much of what goes on. Influencers on social media are human facades of cool who mostly shill for products. Our information is fake, our reality TV is fake, our popular movies are mostly fantasy, and for four years we had a president-as-entertainer-in-chief who was a sociopathic fraud, and is now staging a sequel to his reign based on the mirage that our current president stole the election. Against this backdrop of not-so-grand illusion, there’s something primitively, scuzzily authentic about the gross-out high jinks of the “Jackass” crew. They’re dumbass American lunatic pain freaks, but pain freaks with integrity.
So is the “Jackass” franchise showing its age? No more than the team members themselves. Like Johnny, Steve-O, and the rest, “Jackass Forever” is perpetually amused by itself, a little weatherbeaten, and always game — a no-frills serial stunt movie that’s almost cozy in its depravity, even as the feats of dumbbell daring come off as more dangerous than ever. Since old stunts die hard, it’s inevitable that a number of the segments have a greatest-hits-of-idiocy familiarity, even if you’ve never seen these precise situations before. Johnny, wearing Icarus wings, gets shot out of a cannon, the plus-size newcomer Zach Holmes lands in a mound of cacti, and at one point the team all don marching-band gear so that they can step onto a speeding treadmill that shoots bodies and instruments every which way. You may watch these scenes and think: Been there, cringed at that.
But though it may be my imagination, it struck me that the violence factor has been ratcheted up a notch. In a musical-chairs stunt where four big armchairs explode and eject their inhabitants into the air, Wee Man, as we see in the slow-motion replay, gets flipped up and over in a way that, had he landed a bit differently, could have left him paralyzed for life. That the “Jackass” team members all stand around guffawing may seem a violation of the don’t-laugh-at-your-own-jokes rule, but the laughter is really a catharsis, because it always carries a heavy dollop of relief. “Jackass” isn’t just about pain. It’s about high anxiety, like the priceless look that crosses Ehren McGheney’s face when he’s strapped into a chair and covered in honey and (next to his crotch) chunks of salmon, and into the room walks a hungry bear, who eats the salmon and starts pawing around to see if there’s any more meat there. That same look crosses Dave England’s face just after he’s been drenched in pig semen, but before he’s told what it is. (When he learns, he tosses off the film’s funniest line: “I’m a vegetarian.”)
You can tell that “Jackass Forever” is an unabashedly — one might say honestly — slapdash production from the way that the titling of the stunts falls off in the second half, as if they just couldn’t be bothered, or Johnny Knoxville’s hair keeps changing, every few scenes, from middle-aged whitish-gray to brown and back again. Among the relative newcomers, Rachel Wolfson, the first woman on the team, doesn’t subject herself to the heavy-duty stuff but has a lively moment in a segment called “Scorpion Botox,” and the “Jackass Shark Week” star Sean “Poopies” McInerney adds personality to the proceedings by coming off like Bradley Cooper’s stoned surfer brother. As for Johnny, he is mostly the master of ceremonies this time, overseeing his crew like a proud redneck scout leader. In the end, though, he’s there to give the film its money shot, once again stepping into the rodeo ring with an angry bull. You can only hope, for these dudes’ sakes, that “Jackass” isn’t forever. But for now it’s earning its yucks, and its yuck.