Being Evel

Daniel Junge’s likable, longish documentary opens with Johnny Knoxville informing us that “going for it” is part of the culture now, and that’s thanks to surly macho motorcycle daredevil and 1970s pop icon Evel Knievel. So the audience for this may be self-selecting. But yes, if modern extreme sports and the theater of death defiance have a granddaddy, it’s got to be Evel. Nobody went for it like he did, Knoxville says in the film, which he and fellow Jackass originator Jeff Tremaine produced. Being Evel is chock full of anecdotal factoids. (Or in some cases, possibly fictiontoids.) We learn that Knievel, he of the star-studded white leather jumpsuit, hailed from rough-and-tumble Butte, Montana, where as a kid he took to hurting himself on purpose to prove that nobody else could. Later, having hit a professional ceiling selling insurance, Knievel moved on to selling motorcycles, with publicity stunts like jumping one over a bunch of cougars and rattlesnakes. Later still he bullshitted his way into jumping the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and botched the landing so spectacularly that ample slo-mo footage of the crash pretty much guaranteed instant celebrity. Once rich and famous, he became a big spender and a real asshole; better that than one of those people who live a gray little life and “don’t know victory or defeat because they’ve never tried anything.” By then he’d already kidnapped the woman who would become his wife of nearly 40 years, and cheated on her more times than anyone cared to count. He did some jail time for attacking his former press agent with a baseball bat, but the real punishment for that was having his toy contract cancelled. “Life can be pretty tough,” says Knoxville at the end, nearly misting up, “and ya need your heroes, man.”