Pain & Gain Directed by: Michael Bay Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, Dwayne Johnson, Tony Shaloub, Ed Harris Running Time: 1 hr 50 mins Rating: R Release Date: April 26, 2013
PLOT: Three Miami bodybuilders (Wahlberg, Mackie, Johnson) team up to rob a wealthy sandwich shop owner (Shaloub).
WHO'S IT FOR? Fans of Wahlberg, Johnson, and especially Michael Bay can not miss this movie. For all the aggressive ugly content within Pain & Gain, whether they be frustrating, terrible, or both, bulking up on tolerance for Pain & Gain's shallow expressions is necessary.
Inject steroids into the Coen Brothers, give them buzzcuts, constantly place them around American flags, and take away half of their clever brain cells, but inflate the ones that love an irresistibly crazy idiot plot (with madcappery that seems to go beyond regular human potential). What you're left with is Pain & Gain, a superbly irreverent American crime story from a director who supes up every one of his films like they are Super Bowls. While previously he played with special effects and robots, now Bay is playing with an insane true story involving body builders, with a hulking nuttiness in its dark comedy, as 'roided up by a very selfish pursuit for The American Dream. As Peter Stormare's brief appearance in this movie confirms, this is Bay's own version of Fargo.
A "personal" project from Bay that gives him a break from the Transformers movies, Pain & Gain is more entertaining than it probably should be. It features two great performances, from Walhberg and Johnson, and winds them (along with Mackie, Shaloub, and Harris) through a narrative that continues to juice up on the bizarre, until text has to flash up onscreen in the third act that reads, "This is still a true story."
As Daniel Lugo, Wahlberg provides another amusing boyish idiot (like last summer in Ted), this time embodying the ego of the red, white, and blue, with a character who believes in America just like Bonasera did in the first line of The Godfather (a movie that Lugo refers to more than once). Wahlberg is constantly in tune with the awesome ridiculousness of this character, from the full-on pride as a schmuck-y "doer" (as opposed to "a don't-er"), to the earnest lack of smarts he has as the mastermind of an operation. Hearing Lugo's voiceover in the beginning of the movie, as he expresses his thoughts about America, fitness, and The American Dream, is one of the greatest joys to be found in film so far in 2013.
Wahlberg is joined by another standout, star-making performance from Dwayne Johnson, who shows an ability for macho comedy that goes beyond the impressiveness of his physique. Here, Johnson has created an endearing train-wreck in this person who goes from jail to Jesus to somewhere else dark, all while having a certain innocence to his large flaws.
Pain & Gain is a story with many compelling characters, many of whom have their own segments of voiceover. Each of them is placed at least briefly into a position where this nutty noir is all about them. This decision adds a great amount of color to these characters, which in turn make this story of shallowness even deeper in terms of the psychological ideas that are at bay; here are not one but many different takes on the ever important American Dream.
His presence made obvious by a repeated list of shots that could teach Michael Bay Cinematography 101, this is indeed very much a Michael Bay story, regardless of the nonfictional aspects that this movie clings to. Working with such a tale, Bay gives it a great amount of flashy style, essentially fantasizing the rougher corners of the story and toying with the situation in a way that seems to embrace the loophole of this story - these true events are so wild that immediately discerning fact from screenwriter fiction is not really that possible. Were this tale to be in the hands of almost any other director, it would probably look like an ugly episode of "'Cops," drenched in '90s humbleness. Here, Bay is caught up in the fantasy of it all; this is the movie that Wahlberg's character probably imagined being made about his exploits.
Along with a specific stylization, Bay gives this movie a vital sense of energy. Comedic bits especially are cut with excellent timing, and his camera is constantly rushing to the next car, bikini bod, American flag, or moment of muscle it can put on display. This movie is the definition of Michael Bay's wheelhouse; without knowing by credit if this film were Michael Bay, you'd either assume it was definitely him, or someone trying to parody him.
Bay's movies continue to be fascinating for how they contain so many of the ugliest parts of American culture. In a potentially endless discussion to be had later, Bay continues to readily embrace portrayals of American arrogance, misogyny, racism, and more. Like all of his previous movies, Bay is unapologetic for his ignorant content, and aggressively so. Whether he is ultimately wrong or not, he is thoroughly and proudly American, just like this movie, and is providing either a mirror for which Americans can look upon themselves and be disgusted, or he is playing into their ignorance. The competency in his storytelling, amongst his other filmmaking achievements, suggests he is a smart man who could have awareness to what toxic elements he is toying with in his movies; but his allegiance to this content consistently throughout his filmography might express darker intentions.
As a mainstream crime movie, Pain & Gain is a bizarre comedy that shows Bay can certainly exceed at the basics in film storytelling: compelling characters, a driving narrative, productive visual style, and an eye for surprise. One can only wonder what Bay could do with more stories like this, as opposed to ones that require a numbing amount of CGI. As a potentially hazardous piece of Americana, Pain & Gain is a lot to chew on, for better or for worse, love it or leave it. But, the fact remains true: no mainstream director can so naturally match a whole nation's muscle mass like Michael Bay.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10