Spoiler alert: Some stunts described below.
“Please don’t let there be a Jackass Three.” So pronounces charismatic survivor Bam Margera as Jackass Number Two comes — finally — to an end. It’s not hard to see why he says it. He looks so exhausted, after a movie-long run of dangerous stunts perpetrated by aging bodies to produce raucous laughs. And yet the Jackass franchise seems unstoppable. Even the introductory guitar twang elicits applause and whoo-hoos from eager-to-be-grossed-out viewers. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, tough toasties for you.
Years after the skater tapes and the tv show, Jackass rolls on. This latest incarnation begins with a run with bulls that sends the boys and the animals crashing through a suburban set’s fake walls and windows. On one hand, the stunt compares the annual Pamplona spectacle and the Jackass spectacle: see the likeness between vaunted cultural traditions and the boys’ own art form. It also makes a comparison between movies as a form and the art of violent stunts. Rendered in grandiose slow motion, the sequence parodies the way movies are supposed to work: you introduce your stars, the concept, and then you put them through some challenges, leading to education or evolution. In Jackass, everyone knows going in that the stunts are stupid and the effects painful. And so, the stars and the concept are the challenges, making the case against transformation or resolution as narrative modes.
Or so it seems. The trick of Jackass is that it’s wholly conventional. For all the seeming outrageousness of the premise — don’t try these stunts at home, expect to be offended, you’re watching professionals — Number Two adopts a very familiar and simple (even simplistic) structure. The boys indulge in pain and pleasure, damaging themselves and each other because they can. By the time you reach the finale — a song and dance extravaganza complete with high-kicking girls, tuxedo t-shirts, and an homage to Buster Keaton — you feel as exhausted as the players look, and as unsatisfied: the thing could go on forever (and will, like jackass: the movie, on DVD). The end is never the end. While Bam might be getting too old for a Jackass Three (even Jet Li had to retire sometime), bodily abuse continues to generate delight — or just plain awe.
While you might wonder at the longevity of Johnny Knoxville’s career (even its initiation) or the participation of Bam’s parents, the punk-rocky appeal is plain: boys “everywhere” are supposedly thrilled by the excess and the offense, the effort to undermine structure and upset adults… and girls. It’s no accident that the Jackass universe is male (save for the finale dancers, April Margera, Spike Jonze in drag, and a performer brought in by John Waters, Number Two is populated by boys, all glorious boys). This universe is brutal and tender, cruel and homoerotic. The boys love to talk about and fiddle with their penises. They subject their members to piercing, freezing, and pounding. Indeed, the first stunt puts together Chris Pontius’ penis (outfitted to resemble a “mouse”) and a snake, an exercise that makes the metaphor seem rather redundant.
Number Two is rife with physical injuries, to penises and other body parts: when an anaconda bites Knoxville’s arm repeatedly, the camera dotes on the bloody result; when Knoxville and friends are pelted by anti-riot land mines, they spend a few minutes inspecting the obviously excruciating bruises; and when Bam has his bum branded with a “penis” outline (multiple outlines, actually, as the brander hits him with the hot metal repeatedly, leading Bam to name it “a hologram dick”), the camera again lingers on the injury, especially when Bam goes home to show his mother, who responds as you’d expect. “I’d rather rip my dick off and throw it in the river than do that again,” says Bam.
In this context, the move’s most telling moment — what’s at stake for whom in this saga of boys — involves the “milking” of a stallion. (The film’s interest in farm animals, like bulls, yaks, and horses, might warrant its own thesis someday.) The stopping point for the MPAA is not the horse’s gigantic erect penis (or various other shots of human penises throughout the film) or its mounting of the mare, or even the milking of the animal for sperm. It’s the subsequent action, where the boys drink the sperm. While it’s surely gross, it’s also more specifically sexual (and filed under bestiality) than the other abuses. And so the act of lifting the jar full of sperm to the mouth is blacked out with a big old “censored” label.
The moment goes a long way toward defining the parameters of Jackass, if anyone would even care to do so. Sperm, specifically, its “closeness” to someone’s mouth, marks a limit of representation approached again and again. Consider the less anxious-making stunt wherein Jay Chandrasekhar plays a cab driver who is supposed to be alarmed by Ehren McGehey disguised as a “terrorist.” While the prank involves various sorts of mistreatment and deception, the boys are especially pleased with their concoction of Ehren’s beard out of their collective pubic hair. The attention lavished on the shaving and the collecting, as well as Ehren’s complaints about the hair in his mouth (before he knows what it is). As much as the trick is premised on anxiety and stereotyping having to do with “terrorism,” this particular horror — pubes in the mouth — becomes the focus of laughter and distress. The fact that the cab driver beats down Ehren and locks him in the cab’s trunk seems an afterthought.
The boys’ interest in their dicks and bums is patently adolescent (their refusal to “grow up” constitutes much of the Jackass appeal). While it’s frequently been termed homoerotic or even “gay,” the interest here leads into a strangely broader set of observations, on fear and threats as a cultural norm. Certainly, the boys offer up some familiar-seeming pranks that restate their childish delight in all things doody. They also attend to their butts: whether it’s Wee Man’s naked behind being electro-shocked on a stool (the allusions to notorious modes of torture hardly need be mentioned) or Bam having a dildo slammed up his butt under the guise of a carnival hammer game, the boys repeatedly inflict injury on exposed bottoms, a repetition that makes the ostensible “transgression” (displaying the bottoms or brutalizing them) quite ho-hum.
Repetition is the point and the sticking point of Number Two. Starting with its title and that hologram dick, the movie is all about reference (self- and other) and reiteration rather than originality. It’s not really a rub: the first film is remembered now as being “original” and new-seeming, but the franchise doesn’t challenge norms or institutions so much as it highlights them. Boys rule this universe, like they do so many others.