A pale echo of Johnny Knoxville’s crazy stunt-riddled past.
Back in the early 2000s, in the days of Jackass, Johnny Knoxville stood astride the earth as the idiot god chieftain of an era-particular brand of post-post punk, angry-white-boy destructive rebellion. Tapping into his innate skater-wastoid willingness to give himself concussions – all while wearing a s**t-eating grin of epic proportions – Knoxville unwittingly launched himself to minor icon status, giving voice to all the dejected teenage rebels out there who had no philosophy other than a direct self-harming middle finger to an amorphous adult establishment. The kids needed something ecstatically real in the 2000s, and Knoxville was the sacrificial lamb of Gen X’s waning anti-establishment meaninglessness.
His new film, Action Point, directed by Tim Kirkby, is proof that Knoxville, now 47, has aged dangerously into the realm of halcyon nostalgia. Action Point openly longs for a time in the mid 1970s when local amusement parks like the one in the title were crafted haphazardly by hand, when safety regulations were a faraway pipe dream, and when public injuries at such establishments were common and expected. Parks like Action Point, some older readers may recall, did actually exist, and were indeed rather dangerous; One could easily stride around a rickety mess like Action Point and consider a day without getting tetanus and a greenstick fracture a complete success. Action Point was based loosely on the real-life Action Park (1978 – 1996), a New Jersey establishment known for injured guests and drugged-out staff members.
Knoxville plays D.C., the founder and proprietor of Action Point, and a Schlitz-chugging old kook who only feels at home among his burnout employees, infected concessions, and crumbling rides. Without any sense of irony, Action Point is presented as a weird sort of rib-bruising paradise lost, a glorious Edenic place where kids were free to put themselves in harm’s way for a cheap thrill. It was a time before the world had tasted the forbidden fruit of the “nanny state,” a phrase D.C. uses – in present-day-set bookending sequences – to describe the fallen world of today. That a onetime dangerous punker should be invoking a snippy-politician phrase like “nanny state” is a clear sign that Knoxville has moved out of the punk rock realm of defiance, and solidly into the sad realm of the aging-out hipster. That Knoxville plays himself as a septuagenarian in the bookend portions may be his subtle way of acknowledging his own ebbing cultural significance.
The story of Action Point is insubstantial. It is the summer of ’76, and D.C. is looking after his teenage daughter Boogie (Eleanor Worthington Cox) for the season. They have a contentious relationship, natch. When Action Point begins to wither in popularity, D.C. and his crew of weirdos (including Chris Pontius, Aiden Whytock, Johnny Pemberton, and a notable Brigette Lundy-Paine) resolve to make the part even more dangerous than before, actively enticing guests with the promise of potential injury. Why go to the competing “safe” theme park like a square, when you can actively put yourself in real physical danger at the down-and-dirty – and certainly sincere – local joint?
Over the course of Action Point’s very brief 84 minutes, audiences will witness Knoxville blasted with a firehose, launched out of a concrete Alpine slide, catapulted through a barn, and jabbed with porcupine quills. Knoxville, game as ever, performed these stunts himself. The emotional danger is decidedly lower stakes: D.C. must eventually learn to be a more attentive father to his at-risk daughter, who may be on the brink of literally signing him off as a parent in favor of an offscreen stepdad.
When Knoxville is putting himself in actual peril, and one can catch a brief glimpse of genuine terror on his face, we begin to sense the weird truth of what he has been doing all these years. Why enjoy faked, safe Hollywood stunts when a pack of beer-drunk idiots are willing to do it for real? It’s easy to appreciate that attempt at honesty.
Action Point, however, is a mediocre delivery system for that honesty. As a film, it’s as shabby as its rides, content to be distantly diverting rather than striking or funny or confrontational. Action Point goes through the motions of being shocking and contains a few (awful) moments of legit gross-out humor (Dog penises! Human fluids!), but it, ironically, feels as safe and as warm as the Hollywood comedies it seeks to skewer. There was a time when Johnny Knoxville did crazy crap. Now, it seems, he’s more content to talk about it.