Pain & Gain (2013)
Like a fly to shit, I always get incredibly curious when there’s a bad buzz about a film. It would be an understatement to say that there has been some dung flung around this one, with it appearing on several “worst of the year” lists. Michael Bay’s name has become synonymous with low-brow lunkhead pandering and sickening excess and with mostly good reason. I’ve spoken about it many times, but I often find myself speaking up for the guy. I really enjoy the Bad Boys films, I love The Rock, I don’t mind Armageddon and I actually rate the first Transformers. Having said that, I haven’t liked any of his output for years. As you may have garnered from my oh-so-fucking-witty standard reviewer pun above, Pain & Gain doesn’t break that brown streak.
“The events you are about to see took place in Miami, Florida between October 1994 and June ’95. Unfortunately, this is a true story.”
Purportedly based on a true story, Pain & Gain tells the story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a personal trainer who “masterminds” a criminal plot to seize control and ownership of all of moneyed businessman Viktor Kershaw’s (Tony Shalhoub) assets. Along with gym buddy Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and muscled God fearing Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), the trio kidnap Kershaw and set about their scheme, which soon turns very ugly. I used the term “purportedly” very deliberately as whilst it’s being sold on the “this actually happened” angle, minimal internet research shows that this is third-hand information, the script being largely based on a series of magazine articles about the “Sun Gym Gang”, inviting a lot of opportunities for Chinese whispering and dramatisation, if you catch my not-at-all subtle drift. The cast is a mixed bag. We have seasoned veterans like Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris and Peter Stormare being reliably brilliant, but fighting the limited script every step of the way. Dwayne Johnson, who is one of my favourite people ever, manages to be the only amusing presence and does a damn good job of selling his conflicted role, even if the script once again raises its ugly head and puts him in a box he can’t quite bust out of. Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie are bland as hell and give you no reason to invest anything in their characters. Rebel Wilson also makes an appearance, but is solely used for cheap yuks, which pretty much sums up the film as a whole.
The real story behind all this is a truly shocking one, saturated by greed and grotesque violence. Handled correctly, it could make an amazing dark comedy filled with hubris. Unfortunately, Michael “Sledgehammer” Bay is at the helm and as such, things that require a deft touch and sensitivity are fucking annihilated by his juvenile style and gratuitous nature. The main drive of the film is pointing and laughing. Everything’s a target. Our stupid bodybuilding trio, fatties, homosexuality and women in general are all in the firing line and it gets very tiresome very quickly. It’s fine to show how meatheaded our criminal trio are, considering they thought they could pull off a complicated scheme and walk away clean, but Bay overplays his hand on everything. Despite the main targets being the gang, Bay still manages to glorify the terrible things these people did. He insists on bombastic shots like super slo-mo or that 360 degree shot going in and out of rooms, with the camera moving through glass and walls (similar to the way he shot the Haitian gunfight in Bad Boys II). It’s just too much for this sort of story. There’s even the hackneyed “walking away from an explosion” shot. Thing is, at this point in the film, they’re in the process of murdering someone. This style is fine when in a film where action sequences are the point, death doesn’t matter and bullets are liberal, but with something like this it jars massively. One could argue that the film is being satirical with its shallow, showy presentation, aping the way the main gang would picture events in their heads, but when the film contains testicle jokes and other easy yuks, I think even someone playing devil’s advocate wouldn’t have much ground to stand on.
I would love to see the original script. The screenplay was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the writing duo that brought us the Narnia films, Captain America and Thor: The Dark World .Their past work has been well-structured and often really quite good, so forgive me for thinking that some of the Transformers-esque humour in this film didn’t come from them. My guess is that Bay just couldn’t resist chucking in his trademark cheapseats gags to appease his thick jock demographic. Anyone with a working brain stem could have told you that not only were the gags terrible, but the very notion of putting them into this sort of film was an atrocious idea as it fucks with the tone and comes across as incredibly insensitive and monumentally disrespectful of the real-life happenings. The film keeps banging on about the American Dream and being “a doer” so much it reminded me of F&F 6‘s woeful attempts at theming. I read the gobsmacking source articles and there are completely untapped veins on drama contained in there and the potential for an absolute barnstormer of a film. What we’re given is like a 12 year old’s interpretation of the events, one who skim read the articles and got hung up on pointless details, like Doorbal’s impotence from steroid abuse because teehee his dick doesn’t work.
“Why’d you make me do that to you, Victor? I have responsibilities! Jesus Christ himself has blessed me with many gifts! One of them is knocking someone the fuck out!”
It isn’t all bad. As I said, there are some casting high points (The Rock is once again the MVP) and I must say, the film is structured and paced rather well. In some ways it reminded me of the Coens’ Burn After Reading, which had a similar set-up. If this had been a fictional tale like Burn After Reading, it may have got away with some of this shit, but Bay takes great pains in reminding you that this actually happened, even going so far as having “this is still true” flashing up on the screen during one of the film’s more “out there” moments. He needs restraint. The whole thing being shot like a hyper-edited MTV show really doesn’t help matters. With Pain & Gain, Bay has proved his critics right a thousand times over when they baulked at his ability to direct anything more sophisticated than giant alien robots beating the shit out of each other. I appreciate the fact he tried something new, but this definitely wasn’t the way to go about it. Let’s not get carried away here- it’s not the worst film of the year. It’s not even the worst Michael Bay film. It’s just morally bankrupt, tonally FUBAR and generally empty, which some could argue is worse than any of the crap in Revenge of the Fallen.