Johnny Knoxville may be one of the world’s foremost scholars of self-inflicted pain, but he’s never subjected himself (or us) to anything even half as excruciating as “Action Point,” a dismal new comedy that will leave you longing for the relative artistry and sophistication of the “Jackass” glory days. Because, as much as this might look like a “Jackass” movie — as much as it might provide a ridiculously great premise for a “Jackass” movie — this joyless aberration is most definitely not a “Jackass” movie. It feels generous to call it a movie at all.
The basic idea should have been a total slam dunk. Inspired by New Jersey’s famously dangerous “Action Park,” a deathtrap that was forced to close when the owners were buried in an avalanche of personal injury lawsuits, “Action Point” was never going to be anything more than a masochistic playground built on top of a flimsy plot. That’s all it had to be, and that’s all it should have been — 85 minutes of Knoxville and his friends abusing themselves across a shoddy re-creation of the most unsafe amusement park America has ever known.
What a balm that might have been. In these divided times, this country might have been united by the schadenfreude of watching some middle-aged white dudes try to rupture each other’s testicles for our amusement. For that is the mass entertainment foretold by “Idiocracy,” an increasingly prophetic text whose creator is one of the five men credited for conceiving this mess.
Alas, something truly awful seems to have happened along the way — someone decided that this should try to be a real film. Not just a throwback to a time when people were happy to make their own fun and take some measure of personal responsibility for their recklessness, but also a throwback to a time when the movies were similarly unsupervised.
Set at some point in the late 1970s, “Action Point” is a half-assed homage to a movie culture that didn’t give a damn about franchises, intellectual property, or special effects — a movie culture where the spectacle was still manmade, and not computer-generated. Remember when all you needed to make a comedy was a couple of funny people, a bottomless supply of painkillers, and a standard-issue story about some outcasts trying to protect their little slice of heaven from the corporate suits who wanted the deed? Knoxville sure does. But that nostalgia backfires. Split between the spirit of those old comedies, and the YouTube-era shenanigans that helped make them extinct, “Action Point” spectacularly fails to convey the joys of either.
There’s not enough story here, but also far too much. Knoxville stars as D.C., a (remarkably convincing) old man who’s babysitting his granddaughter one sunny afternoon. One thing leads to another, and he starts regaling the pre-teen girl with tales of his younger and more vulnerable years, back when he used to “run” Action Point. In particular, he waxes poetic about the time when the girl’s mom — D.C.’s daughter — came to stay with him.
Played by 16-year-old Eleanor Worthington Cox, little Boogie isn’t all that close with her pops. In fact, one of the only two things we ever learn about her is that she wants D.C. to sign away his custody (the other is that she has a thing for The Clash). But maybe — just maybe — that one magical summer Boogie spends with the motley crew of misfits at Action Point will convince her to give her dad another shot.
It’s a fine start, and there’s no shortage of kooky characters for Boogie to hang out with (“Jackass” regular and “Somewhere” star Chris Pontius takes the biggest supporting role), but things soon go to hell. The first problem with the screenplay is that “Action Point” has a screenplay. Each scene basically hinges on the same idea: Deliver a “Jackass” movie while trying way too hard to obscure the fact that this should have just been a “Jackass” movie. It’s a strenuous task for writers John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, who can’t think of a single joke that’s as funny as the sight of a fat man falling straight through a water slide or of Knoxville trying to capture a porcupine with his bare hands.
First-time director Tim Kirkby has even more trouble, futilely applying conventional film grammar to the kind of reckless “Jackass” stunts that only worked so well because they had the DIY appeal of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Johnny Knoxville was such a phenomenon because he cut out the middleman — he was Bob Saget and the morons who wanted to be famous for getting hit in the nuts with a tennis ball. On “Jackass,” he would tell you about the grievous bodily harm he was about to suffer or inflict, and then he’d follow through on that promise. It was pure setup and payoff — no cuts, all gory. Staged, but not scripted.
Photo credit: Sean Cliver
By trying to weave that carnage into the braindead grammar of an Adam Sandler comedy, Kirkby loses virtually all of its appeal. D.C. tries to escape an alcoholic bear by jumping off a huge tree. D.C. tests the catapult he wants to put in the park by launching himself into a wooden barn. D.C. crashes into the windshield of his car when Pontius slams on the breaks. All of these gags look every bit as painful as you’d think, and there’s no doubt that Knoxville is still doing his own stunts (he spent a lot of time in the hospital for this one), but they blend into the fakery of everything around them. Several of the most cringe-worthy bits are even relegated to the background.
It’s almost as if the movie doesn’t really want you to enjoy the agony too much, because anything that believable risks exposing the artifice of the story and its characters — anything that good risks exposing everything that bad. For most of its interminable runtime, “Action Point” feels like a porno that deliberately ruins the sex scenes in order to stop you from fast-forwarding through the plot. The result is an ill-conceived disaster, the first time in Knoxville’s impressively long career that leaves you with nothing but pity for his pain. It’s an agonizing night at the movies, and damning proof that they really don’t make them like they used to.
“Action Point” is in theaters now.