“Same mother, different daddies” is how Johnny Knoxville describes the relationship between his Jackass pranksters and the titular crew of Nitro Circus: The Movie 3D, a group of wannabe-Evil Knievels led by daredevil Travis Pastrana who perform insane feats aboard motorcycles, ATVs, school buses, and retrofitted Big Wheels-style tricycles. More astute, though, is another talking head’s opinion that the primary dividing line between the two is that the stunts performed in Jackass are meant to fail, catastrophe being the source of their humor, whereas Nitro Circus‘s exploits are designed to succeed, since malfunctions or mistakes have potentially lethal consequences. Disappointingly, then, the risk of death barely creeps into Gregg Godfrey and Jeremy Rawle’s film, with the Grim Reaper only rearing his head during one vehicular mishap in which a member is rushed to the hospital after suffering undisclosed but “serious” injuries. Instead, the material’s true guiding spirit is one of rollicking boundary-pushing craziness, as Pastrana and his friends attempt all manner of tricks that defy good sense, from jumping from one 400-foot Panama City skyscraper rooftop to another, to crossing chasms in semi trucks and speedboats, to attempting to best one another for the world-record number of car-crash rolls—all of them shot in 3D that, while not able to provide in-your-face thrills akin to the best moments of Jackass 3D, still gives the action an added visceral dimension.
Unfortunately, while the Nitro Circus’s many achievements are impressive, they pale in comparison to those of Knoxville and company’s, if only because, while bodily harm is still ever-present (one after another, members lands on their heads, crack their backs, or smash limbs), the tricks themselves are less gonzo-juvenile than simply BMX-grade daring. Meanwhile, the directors’ use of a wannabe-humorous narrator to introduce the various Nitro Circus players is almost as clunky as staged footage of Pastrana and his friends as kids trying out bike jumps—a recurring bit that bluntly speaks to the film’s portrait of its subjects as lifelong risk-takers still engaged in the idiotic anything-goes one-upmanship of their youth. That’s undoubtedly true, and the goofy enthusiasm of these lunatics—including sole female member Jolene Van Vugt and wheelchair-bound Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham—is infectious, even when their various stabs at to-the-camera humor casts into sharp relief how less personality-driven Nitro Circus is compared to Jackass. The Vegas live show that serves as the film’s climax winds up being a rather weak summation of their work, and far less impressive than an intro sequence of myriad motorcycles and monster trucks leaping in unison across dirt gorges. Nonetheless, it, like the film itself, confirms that a combination of fearlessness, athleticism, and stupidity pays.