Action Point (2018) by Tim Kirkby
Review by Nathan Smith
Culture is a cycle, they say, or at the very least an ouroboros choking on its own ass. Everything that was once old will become new; that gum you like is inevitably going to come back in style. As our planet inches ever closer toward the sun and an extinction level event seems all the more likely, many seem to possess a newfound nostalgia for the Bush years, which in the light of our current lowered standards don’t look as bad as they once did. It’s 2018, and Tripp jeans, Nelly Furtado, and enhanced interrogation techniques are in vogue once again. So it should come as no surprise that another one of that era’s most iconic stars, Johnny Knoxville, the sadistic, shit-grinning ringleader of MTV’s most motley crew of misbehaved merrymakers, is seeking his own “-aissance.”
In defending one’s love of Jackass – the short-lived television program devoted to the weekly exhibition of what can only loosely be described as “stunts,” which mutated into a film franchise once Joe Lieberman deemed the show too dangerous for television – it is possible to take a variety of “respectable” approaches. One may attempt to construct a historical lineage, placing Jackass in dialogue with its obvious ancestors, from John Waters – who blessed the Jackass boys with a cameo appearance in their second film – to the work of video artists like Chris Burden, whose 1971 conceptual performance piece “Shoot” is recalled by the numerous Jackass sketches that involve Johnny Knoxville being shot at – or shooting himself – with riot control and “self defense” weaponry. Perhaps one can extol the existence of Jackass as a by-product of a post-Beavis and Butthead, War on Terror world that found American boys, whether out of suburban malaise or as remittance for the sins of Abu Ghraib, compelled to desecrate their flesh. Maybe Spike Jonze’s association with the series as a co-creator, executive producer, and occasional participant is enough to redeem it for those who value his work as a filmmaker.
But Jackass is perhaps a turd best left unpolished. It’s fun because it’s fun. Sometimes you need to see a grown man get kicked in the balls, or a grown man writhe around in excrement, or a grown man shove a toy car where the sun will never shine. Sometimes you want a complicated Rube Goldberg machine of a comic gag. Other times you just want to see two dudes glue their chest hair together.
The magic of Jackass was its relentless and unwavering commitment to never, ever giving a fuck, and it’s a magic Knoxville attempts to conjure once again with his latest bear trap, Action Point. Knoxville is at the moment in his career where he, like Adam Sandler, desperately needs to pull a Jerry Lewis and pivot to total filmmaking, but we’ll have to keep waiting on that one: Action Point is brought to us by first-time director Tim Kirkby. It may have Knoxville as well as Jackass alum Chris Pontius, who plays a creepier version of his character from Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, but Action Point is hardly a Jackass movie.
Knoxville plays D.C., an aging daredevil who regales his granddaughter with stories of his glory days as the owner of Action Point, the world’s most dangerous theme park. Action Point is staffed by “the Shitbirds,” a merry gang of misfit teens, who hold the park together with a little duct tape and a lot of inventive thinking. Rides are always falling apart, kids are always getting hurt, and D.C., who drinks beer faster than he can breathe, is always behind on loans. A menacing new mega-attraction called Seven Parks has come to town and threatens to shut the scrappy little Action Point down, so in order to make a few extra bucks and stave off foreclosure, D.C. embraces his park’s dangerous edge and literally takes the brakes off, making the rides faster and the thrills more intense. It’s like one of those games of Rollercoaster Tycon where you remove the algorithmic seatbelts, crank up the speed, and try to kill everyone who makes the mistake of getting on one of your rides. Needless to say, the park is a smashing success.
The film itself, however, is less successful. Though Knoxville has envisioned a scenario that affords him ample opportunities to hurt himself, it’s telling that the funniest gag in the movie is a brown bear who drinks beer, not anything that Knoxville actually does to his own body. Despite the relative lack of physical thrills, Knoxville reportedly hurt himself more on Action Point than any of his other films: according to Entertainment Weekly, he racked up a “quartet of concussions, broken hand, left-eye fracture, torn meniscus, lost teeth, and whiplash.” It’s clear that the now 47-year old Knoxville isn’t in the shape that he used to be; the only thing more on display than his desire to harm himself is his age.
You could argue that Action Point is in some ways about the problem of the aging body. The film is set in a half-assed impression of the late 1970s, where everyone smokes reefer and wears band tees, which D.C. tells us was a supposedly simpler, freer time when kids could do dumb shit with few repercussions. Though the old D.C. grumbles about “the nanny state” and “helicopter parents,” the movie feels less like a paean to political incorrectness than an attempt to cash in on a raw cultural climate. Johnny Knoxville’s no Roseanne; he’s not even Tim Allen. It’s clear that what he’s really nostalgic for is that era I began this review discussing: the Bush years, the salad days of Knoxville's success and his physical prime. Anybody who has spent longer than a minute on the internet knows that kids can still do dumb shit with few repercussions in 2018; the movie even opens with D.C. bonding with his granddaughter by watching one of YouTube’s ubiquitous fail compilations.
Though Knoxville could rightfully be considered the auteur of his own work, Action Point misses the touch of Jeff Tremaine, who turned out some of the most conceptually radical works Hollywood has ever produced in the Jackass trilogy and Bad Grandpa. Action Point attempts to emulate the last official Jackass film, Bad Grandpa, the most formally audacious American movie this side of The 15:17 to Paris, but fails to mix a strict storyline with stunts as well as Tremaine integrated candid camera into his road trip narrative.
Like Bad Grandpa, Action Point leans heavy on the sentiment and is more concerned with D.C.’s relationship with his daughter than the hijinks that actually get asses in the seats. But one should be careful not to confuse sentimentality for sincerity, something Jackass possessed in plenitude. Knoxville may have been the star around which the Jackass constellation orbited, but it was always more about a sense of family than a sole individual. No matter how far the Jackass boys pushed themselves, it was always clear that their bodies and their friendships would bounce back. One got the sense that, at the end of the day, Jackass was a group of friends making something for each other. The fact that other people got a kick out of it was just a bonus. It’s not clear at all who Action Point is made for. Like the park itself, the Jackass movies always felt held together by chicken wire, baling twine, and sheer will in its near lack of structure. Action Point, on the other hand, is too calculated, too controlled, and not nearly reckless enough. As much as I might adore Jackass and Mr. Knoxville, some phenomena are best left buried in the past.