Pain & Gain

Certificate: 15
Running Time: 129 mins
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub
Genre: Crime, Comedy
Country: USA

Daniel Lugo is going after the American Dream and he’s going to get it the old fashioned way…he’s going to steal it.  Recruiting two equally aspiring body-builders from his Miami based gym including reformed felon/born again Christian Paul Doyle (Johnson) the trio go after a local businessman first kidnapping him before forcing him to sign over everything he owns.  But as the old expression highlights – easy come, easy go; and when you haven’t worked for it, it goes even easier.

First things first, I don’t like Michael Bay.  I don’t like his movies, I don’t like the brain decaying mega-hype that goes along with his movies.  His brand of cinema is the silver screen equivalent of what Simon Cowell is doing to music and television and I’d sooner watch Grandma work-over a dock full of sailors fresh on dry land for a week’s shore leave than have to suffer through a Transformers marathon.  In Pain & Gain it seems that Bay has attempted to confront the criticism that many have of him and how he has lost touch with whatever degree of film making he once had and it’s met with varying degrees of success.  When he’s not doing anything with the camera Pain & Gain looks and feels like a movie, maybe even a film (there is a difference).  There’s a certain amount of control over the pacing and direction of the narrative that keeps everything tense yet entertaining and ticks along at an enjoyable rate.  In parts it’s reminiscent of Tony Scott (another long standing Bruckheimer collaborator) during his Man on Fire, Domino phase and it warms the heart to think of the maverick we’ve recently lost.  The problems arise when he gets ideas greater than his ability.  His range of movement with the camera is at best nausea inducing and at worst annoying as it repeatedly moves and passes through walls and doors or slows down to a “bullet time” speed or freezes in order for an explanation of what’s going on to appear on screen, just in case the audience have trouble following a Michael Bay movie that’s attempting to have a plot.  There are a few scenes in particular (which we won’t discuss in any detail as they’re integral to the story) in which the use of camera alongside visual effects to pass it from one location and back again is so distracting and annoying that it descends into the absurdity of CSI: Miami only without the ginger headed Ray Ban brandishing troll that is David Caruso.

Narratively the film works on the Gordon Gecko principles that greed is good with the added Shakespearian tragedy amendment that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  It’s a tried and tested formula for crime movies, gangster movies, and even political movies throw in the added twist that these three men are cretins and you have a recipe for comedic disaster.  It’s something along the lines of 'The Three Stooges hulk up and do crime' which is fine, it’s an entertaining concept only these are based on real people.  Real people that committed real crimes and yet, at very few points during the movie, do you ever feel that the story is trying to show them honestly as the cold blooded criminals they are.  It’s fine for the actors to believe and portray their characters as “doing the right thing” – that’s integral to the depiction but there needs to be serious concern over a film-maker's judgement when he’s happy to all but prompt this sort of “go get it” homicidal intent were their only true crime being that they’re supremely stupid enough to get themselves caught.  This problem is never more apparent than when you see the real faces of Daniel Lugo, Paul Doyle and Adrian Doorbal.  These are not bumbling fools who just got in over their heads, these are not the men that the film are presenting you and it’s a real shame the treatment had to be this way as it sours the film somewhat.

Mark Wahlberg (Lugo) puts in a dedicated shift.  For anyone requiring it The Fighter delivers proof positive that he will get himself physically into character which he does impressively bulking up for Pain & Gain but it’s a performance that’s more notable for what he brings to the table physically over characteristically.  There are many shapes to Wahlberg over his career but seemingly only a handful of performative gears and what we see in Pain & Gain is him falling into the misguided and loveable rogue of David O. Russell’s Three Kings.  Anthony Mackie (Doorbal) is an interesting piece of casting.  His stock is on the rise after solid performances in The Hurt Locker, Man on a Ledge and the ridiculous Gangster Squad and with his forthcoming appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier not to mention The Avengers: Age of Ultron (as The Falcon) he’s an actor who is about to explode everywhere.  Yet here he’s given sidekick status, rarely with enough to do and though his transformation (in bulk) is no doubt impressive it’s lost on screen next to Wahlberg, and even more alongside The People’s Champion which brings us nicely along to the best thing about Pain & Gain.  The first third-generation wrestler in WWF (WWE for the kids) history, the most electrifying man in sports entertaining and the proprietor of the Smackdown Hotel, the one, the only, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.  I’ve been a fan of Rocky for many years.  His exit from the wrestling ring was a pained loss, his appearance in cinema a doubt edged sword of good (The Game Plan, Walking Tall) and bad (Journey 2, GI Joe: Retaliation) but never has it been more apparent that this man can act.  As Doyle, Johnson showcases the sort of comedic timing that wrestling fans will know all too well but also a softness before his slow and steady descent into drugs, rage and terrible decision making.  He’s not the highest card in the pack and while he’s “with God” there’s a soft side of the man-tower but there’s also an uncontrollable, combustible quality to him that not only enthralling to watch but also incredibly intimidating.  It’s a shame this is all too often played for laughs by Bay as it could have seriously added another string to this band but make no mistake about it – Johnson is the best thing about this movie.  There has been talk for some time now that Johnson was due to portray Charlie Pride in a biopic, we can only hope to see that as I have no doubt it will bring out the appreciation of “The Great One” in all cinema-goers.

The support cast is fleshed out with high calibre comedic talent (Rebel Wilson, Rob Corddry, Ken Jeong) and even though they are all excellent it does feel that they’re there to up the joke-o-meter and help sell this Roided-up Three Stooges American Dream gone wrong flick.

In the hands of a Paul Thomas Anderson or David O. Russell (both directors Wahlberg is familiar with) Pain & Gain could have been a cautionary tale for the modern age, one to rival the great greed talents of Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Stone’s Wall Street but in Michael Bay’s hands it is sadly a two stringed home-made instrument lacking in depth and nuance alike.  Focusing on the positive though it is an extremely entertaining, easy to watch genre tale of everything that is great and simultaneously bad about the wild AmericasBay’s best cinematic offering in many, many, many years and the only one to merit more than a two pentagram rating (thanks to The Brahma Bull).


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