The smart money says that if you were a fan of Jackass, the popular reality television series that ran on MTV for three seasons between 2000 and 2002, you were probably a fan of Jackass: The Movie, which basically qualified as an extended episode unbound from the ties of the FCC, and Jackass: Number Two, its sequel. It should come as no surprise that the same goes for Jackass 3D, the latest installment from the same gang of uninhibited skate-punks who made their name by taking tumbles in full-to-bursting latrines and attempting an amateur bull-wrangling more than a decade ago. Rare is the stunt these egoless goofballs pull off that doesn't make your stomach want to invert but that is, of course, the point. Led by fearless leader Johnny Knoxville, these masters of masochism, now all well into their 30s or 40s, fear no fate that dangerous animals, impossible stunts, and, most pointedly, their own bodies may bring upon them, and watching them perpetually defying their own pain centers and, in some cases, mortality…well, it's just about the funniest thing this side of Dušan Makavejev.
Indeed, the first thing I thought of when I finished Makavejev's wondrous whatsit, Sweet Movie, as part of my Cinematic Expression course load at SUNY Purchase, was how Knoxville and company might have reacted to the tribe of nudists who took to eating each other's feces toward the end of the film. The Jackass clan—or more pointedly, Dave England—only went as far as to take a large bite of a horse turd in Jackass: Number Two, but the boys have nevertheless bucked every chance to heed the urgent warnings of their superegos and have continued, in a dozen or so offshoots such as Viva La Bam and Wildboyz, to strive on with a shockingly low occurrence rate of serious injuries. Their legal woes have also been astonishingly marginal, most stemming from peccadilloes involving obscenity or lewd behavior in public that have gone largely (thankfully) unreported in popular media.
Perhaps in response to this, Jackass has consistently steered away from sloganeering, biased chest-thumping and the socially minded pranks that have been Sacha Baron Cohen's stock and trade. Their political and social ideologies, if they have any stable ones, have remained essentially enigmatic, which isn't to say that Jackass isn't in and of itself an act of performance art with sizable political ramifications. When, in Jackass 3D, the boys frantically make their way down a hallway littered with dangling, live Tasers and cattle prods, they are, of course, playing off one of the oldest and truest idioms of comedy: that the best comedy is also the most dangerous. What Knoxville and his gang are tapping into has its roots in Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis and Andy Kaufman, Monty Python and Luis Buñuel, to mention only a few. And one need look no further than the decline in quality of Saturday Night Live following the death of the brilliant, fearless Chris Farley and, to a far lesser extent, the exit of Will Ferrell to see how physicality can often be the crucial ingredient in a successful sketch.
The chances of Andy Samberg dressing in a steak suit and dangling above starved alligators are about as low as the chances of SNL rebounding from its twee-friendly cavalcade of shallow jokes about what's been trending on Twitter. In contrast, Jackass has remained our everlasting light from its very inception and having another 87 minutes of their blinding lunacy is enough to deem Jackass 3D an unqualified triumph. The sole tweaking of the group's tried-and-true formula is right in the title but it must be said that the use of 3D here is far less beneficial than director Jeff Tremaine's use of Phantom high-speed cameras to shoot the majority of these performances. Starting a movie off by having Beavis and Butthead explain 3D technology is a quick way to garner favor, but the Phantom picks up contorted visages, reactive bodies, and any number of animals that slither, roar, bite, and snort with stunning clarity that is borderline hypnotic, making such minor pranks as Bam Margera's "Rocky" punches all the more punishing and hilarious at once.
There is certainly a metaphor to be made by watching Ehren McGhehey projectile shit upside down (also known as "The Volcano") in 3D, but Tremain, who co-created Jackass with Knoxville and sometimes-performer Spike Jonze, and his motley crew refuse to give the camera even one wink in this context. Like in most movies, the 3D in Jackass 3D is only as good as its most pre-planned sequences, such as the glorious opening credits and the "end" stunt. Otherwise, it holds very little purpose and in this situation, offers only a handful of rewards. Even so, it's never distracting and the purveyors of this perverse chaos would never turn their noses up at the chance to add another exclamation point.
An ipso facto ode to the tireless work of stunt men and stunt coordinators, not to mention EMS workers and zoologists, Jackass 3D is perhaps most potent as a deafening, relentless giggle in the face of the very biological imperatives that cause us to act sensibly, take life seriously and chase after maturity. It was interesting, during the marketing run-up to the film, to see Knoxville chatting with David Letterman, who took the role of concerned uncle. "This is your last one, right?" Letterman asked hesitantly, to which Knoxville responded to with the knowing verbal equivalent of a shrug and a tittle.
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Paramount's 1080p transfer is a bit of a seesaw. When the Phantom camera footage appears, the clarity is utterly spellbinding. Big colors pop and both details and textures, in skin, clothing, gadgets, and structures, come through peerlessly. When other cameras are used, the transfer is far more modest and often shows some detriments, but nothing that ruins the experience, to be sure. This goes double for the audio, which picks up every nuance of the various wrecks while also handling the excellent soundtrack with ample balance. It's not a film that poses a challenge for a mixer, but the sound is nevertheless handled beautifully even when the image isn't completely pristine. A strong transfer overall.
There is, of course, a bevy of outtakes and deleted scenes that give you exactly what you would want from these sort of extras: botched attempts, extra pranks, and wardrobe malfunctions. Past that, there is a fine 30-minute making-of documentary that sufficiently garnered my attention in relation to how the contraptions are built and how the stunts are structured and timed but could have gone on for a bit longer. A DVD copy with 3D glasses is included, but is not nearly as effective as the 2D Blu-ray image quality. An uncut version of the film and a digital copy are also offered.
Radical body humor remains the chief focus in the third installment of the highly divisive Jackass series, which is intermittently dazzling on Blu-ray.