Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris and Tony Shalhoub
Release Date: Aug 30
Between giant transforming robots and mutant turtles that practice the art of Ninjitsu, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Michael Bay is a director, one who directs people, and not an LSD fanatic building a Hollywood themed roller-coaster in another galaxy. Unlike the woefully angsty romance between Shia Labeouf and Megan Fox/Rosie Huntington Whitely however, this can actually lead to a very watchable, albeit somewhat shallow and muddled, viewing experience.
Based on a true story, Pain and Gain introduces us immediately to Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), performing a brutal and impossibly manly work-out in a sleazy part of Miami. This opening shot is the most poignant and suggestive of the entire film, as it shows Lugo as the king of his estate, despite his estate being a run-down slum. He is confident, domineering and enthusiastic. As he himself puts it, he is a ‘doer’. It is a striking image, one that stands in direct contrast to almost the entirety of the ensuing film in order to coerce us into trying understanding his character. He is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a vest, as it were.
As a man obsessed with quads, protein shakes and spouting out the kind of motivational gibberish usually found on the back of energy drinks, Lugo is content with his life as a personal trainer. Content, but not happy. The temptations of the playboy lifestyle, the way the better half live, are forever present in his line of work, with wrinkly old men meekly explaining that the reason they’re out of shape is due to so much time spent at their summer houses by the beach and eating an extra portion of venison at Dorsia. After a motivational speech from a seedy billionaire, played with great eccentricity by Ken Jeong, he decides to take what he feels he has rightfully earned in a testosterone fueled, and very illegal, kidnapping scam.
Enlisting the help of his steroid obsessed spotting buddy, Adrian (Mackie), and the gargantuan Paul (Johnson), Pain and Gain has it’s hook in the fact that these pinnacles of fitness are not just idiots, but a very specific breed of idiot. The wonderful thing about watching them operate their plans is that there is a logic behind it. It’s just that their logic is boiled down to it’s simplest terms, A to B, no complications. So when complications do inevitably arise, they resort it in the only way muscle-bound simpletons can.
This may sound like the painfully dull shtick that Bay tends to churn out regularly, (big guy A hits little guy B…..which happens in the most literal sense possible) but the characters themselves are richly developed in a way that makes them very interesting to follow. Adrian has his drug problems, which are directly linked to his motivation for the kidnapping, as well as an unusual romance. And Dwayne Johnson plays Paul, a child-like born again Christian with occasional anger issues and a limited capacity for financial handling, with absolute relish. Like almost anything he is in, The Rock is the main reasons to see this film, his likable personality undergoing a steady transformation that feels both radical and believable, though admittedly, not entirely organic.
While Johnson carries the majority of the film, it couldn’t function without Wahlberg at its center. He plays Lugo with great gusto, but still allows for his co-stars to breathe, really allowing for Johnson in particular to cut loose. Bay appears to be trying to show us a caricature of the muscle-headed jock and what makes him tick, and Wahlberg delivers a spot-on caricature who is both comical but strangely sympathetic in his ignorance to the way in which the world works. His methods and disregard for others paints him as a cocky criminal, but bizarrely, that same optimism and charisma is also what makes him so likable at times. In one scene, just after he has illegally acquired his wealth, he is seen simply caressing his new, incredibly soft couch. The look of bliss on his face is infectious, and for a spilt second you’ll find yourself thinking that they do indeed deserve this.
But this doesn’t last of course. Lugo and his friends are dicks. They’re idiots. But they’re not just dicks and idiots. They’re dicks and idiots with personalities, who became dicks and idiots over the course of a journey, rather than just popping into existence for the sake of having a henchman or bouncer on the scene, which, if we’re being honest, is almost the only way these people are ever really depicted in film.
The downside, however, is that Pain and Gain is still plagued with a number of issues that are typical of Bay’s work. It’s extremely bloated for one thing. At just over 2 hours, the running time shouldn’t really be felt if the audience is having fun, but Pain and Gain could do with trimming a good 20 minutes of fat. It feels more like a series of nonsensical and unrelated skits after the halfway point. It’s also very openly misogynist, with few women being associated with anything other than sex and strip clubs utterly glorified. Bay acknowledges, but does not address these issues, in a chuckle-worthy manner that only really seems sad the more you think about it. It’s as though he’s trying to be in on the joke, even if the joke is himself.
The cinematography that he is known for is also present here, but noticeably toned back. This basically boils down to slow-mo, but not as much. As mentioned, the initial shot is particularly impressive, but nothing else really approaches this over the course of the fairly bland looking film, a sin when it takes place in Miami. It goes to show that there is potential in Bay, but he is still unwilling to fully explore it, with a very ‘It’s not perfect but it’ll do’ attitude.
Overall, Pain and Gain is a pretty excellent ‘background’ film, easy to imagine popping up on TV as a late night movie. It has its problems and it’s certainly not going to win awards for it’s messy and exhaustive second half. Still, it’s an interesting character study, given a little bit more depth than Bay is known for, and, with more than a little help from The Rock, is bound to get a few solid laughs from even the most cynical of audiences
Written by Stephen Hill