Yesterday I pointed everyone to the article that Pain & Gain is based on because you’re going to see this movie and you’re not going to believe it actually happened. In some ways you’ll be right, because the film takes some liberties with characters and actions. In other ways you’ll be dead wrong because the real story is weirder and more sinister than the film ever hints at. It’s just a very, very odd story.
But Pain & Gain is kind of an oddball all around. It’s a Michael Bay movie with only one explosion in it. It’s a film starring Dwayne Johnson where his emotional performance far outshines his physical. It’s a movie where you realize you’re really not cheering for the right people far later than you should. It’s a movie where, much like its muscle bound leads, everything appears big and shiny on the outside, but below that there’s something really dark.
Pain & Gain Director: Michael Bay Rated: R Release Date: April 26, 2013
So what is this insane story of American crime? Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg plus 40lbs of muscle), his weightlifting pal Adrain Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and newly released from jail, born again Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) decide they’re tired of living off minimum wage so they’re going to kidnap Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a wealthy Miami business man who seems a little sketchy to them. Their plan is to kidnap him, make him sign over all his wealth and property and then dispose of him. Despite not being the three sharpest knives in the drawer (or the world) they eventually succeed at kidnapping him and stealing his life. After multiple ludicrous (yet true) attempts to kill him fail things start to really get out of control.
It sounds ridiculous, but this actually happened and the film doesn’t veer too far from the truth in how it happened. What it does do that is incredibly different from the true story is turn the criminals into anti-heroes by presenting Victor Kershaw as a really intolerable human being and the three bodybuilders as the darkly deserving recipients of an American dream. It's either horribly offensive or a brilliant bit of commentary on American culture. It's hard to tell which, really, but there’s a point in the film (probably when they start chopping off limbs with chainsaws) that you realize these three guys are actually psychopathic criminals and you’ve bought into Lugo’s racist, bullshit American dream story a bit more than you're comfortable with. While the twisting of the tale to turn the criminals in anti-heroes may seem a bit perturbing it’s attempting to comment on the modern day American dream.
What’s really surprising is this comes from Michael Bay who has proven time and time again that he is great and blowing things up, but really bad at anything else. What a perfect film to toss that idea out the window with considering his films are the glossy American dreams of Hollywood. While on the surface Pain & Gain looks like a typical Bay film with action and muscles and naked women, it’s by far his most inspired and insightful work to date. For most directors this film would be high octane, but for Bay it’s practically a three hour art house film showing a flower blooming in excruciatingly slow time lapse photography. The change in pace does trip him up a bit as the film starts to feel a bit long thanks to the first act pushing on longer than it needs to and his "art house" themes are as brilliantly represented as he wants them to be.
Bay does pull out Dwayne Johnson’s best performance to date, further proving what I’ve said: the man can act. While Johnson easily steals the show as his character careens through fits of anger, drug addiction and insanity, the rest of the cast is surprisingly adept as well. Shalhoub is instantly unlikable until you realize you probably should have been on his side from the start and Wahlberg layers his Lugo with a disturbing amount of menace before it explodes onto the screen. I know that discussing character portrayals in a review of a Michael Bay film may sound weird, but it’s really the characters that stand out in the film and not the action or even the humor.
There is humor. The film is definitely not played straight, but the story is darkly comical in its own right and that’s where most of the humor is derived from. Like the characters themselves, you enjoy it until you realize it wasn’t really that funny. Wait, why was the torture of an innocent person humorous? It’s all in the packaging is the film’s answer. This is the ridiculousness of American culture personified and it’s worth laughing at until you realize just how terrible it is; a dark comment on our quest for more.
I think, however, I’ve made the movie sound a bit smarter than it actually is. I’ve somewhat described what the movie really wants to aspire to, but doesn’t quite reach. Bay doesn’t construct the film well enough to turn it into the social commentary it should be. Instead he lets bits drag and others ramp up and the pacing and themes get lost somewhere in the middle. It’s a bold effort by a director who’s claim to fame can be summed up by onomatopoeia (BOOM), but years of ditching thought for non-stop action means he can’t quite nail the movie he wanted to make. Maybe in another twenty years he’ll put down his detonators and try again.