Review: Pain & Gain
When Michael Bay revealed that what he really wanted to do, between all those pesky billion-dollar Transformers behemoths, was make a ‘small, character-driven’ feature, it was difficult to imagine what that might look like.
Could a Michael Bay film exist without spectacular pyrotechnics or extravagant 360 degree camera-spins around sky-framed heroes? (Not to mention copious images of long-limbed ‘babes’ shot from prurient angles…)
The question remains unanswered, because Pain & Gain, despite its ‘small’ budget (around the same size as 1995’s Bad Boys), has all the aforementioned elements in abundance and is absolutely, resolutely a Michael Bay Film.
Crucially though, the ‘Bayhem’ on display here serves a story that actually suits garish retelling.
Culled from the headlines (specifically, a series of articles from The Miami Herald), this true life tale of Miami bodybuilders who hatch a get-rich-quick kidnapping plan that spirals horribly out of control is so absurd, tragic and ridiculous, it almost feels like it had to happen so Bay could make a movie about it. As a statement at the start of the film offers: “Unfortunately, this is a true story” (Later, towards the film’s increasingly frenetic climax, another caption will wryly remind: “This is still a true story”.)
The commentary is indicative of the film’s tone, which gleefully unravels its diverting plot whilst constantly underlining its absurdities through arch framing and arresting images.
The tighter budget seems to have invigorated Bay, whose slick visuals and slyly dark – though rarely subtle – sense of humor are well suited to his testosterone-fuelled stooges.
When we first meet con-man turned personal trainer Daniel Lugo (played by Wahlberg with a sociopath’s mix of intensity and naivety) he lays out his philosophies in voiceover: “I believe in fitness”; “Be a doer, not a don’t-er”; “It was time to push myself harder…”
It quickly becomes clear he’s basically Travis Bickle, or perhaps Rupert Pupkin, if they were transported to Miami and pumped full of steroids.
With his gym job not covering the bills, and forced to watch his rich or, worse, fat clients exude the affluence and wealth he so desperately desires, Lugo decides to take what he wants. After all, it would be un-American not to.
He targets the crass, wealthy Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), a self-made man prone to charmless declarations (“You know who invented salad? Poor people.”). Shaloub has a ball spitting out his sneers and brags and making the victim no more sympathetic than his assailants, lending credence to the film’s underlying thesis that nobody who chases more is happy, even those who get it. (Who’d have thought Bay would make a film decrying the American Dream?)
Lugo assembles a team that achieve the somewhat unlikely feat of making him the smartest man in the room. Dumb and dumber and dumberer. Gym buddy Adrian Doorbal’s (Anthony Mackie) special set of skills mostly entail injecting himself with so many steroids his ‘bits’ no longer function. While ex-con Paul Doyle’s (Dwayne Johnson) slender grip on reality requires sobriety and religion, both of which fall by the wayside when he remembers how much he loves cocaine.
Johnson is a revelation. The actor has acknowledged that he was initially nervous about how ‘dark’ his character was written but Bay talked him round. It was a smart move. Doyle’s powder-fuelled descent provides the film with many of its most outrageously funny scenes and Johnson is simply unmissable in a performance that would win awards if anybody actually gave them to comic turns.
The rest of the astutely assembled cast all deliver note-perfect grotesqueries – a failed wrestler, a horny nurse, a porn baron, an aspirant bimbo – and Bay shoots them with infectious abandon.
His seeming inability, or unwillingness, to create anything resembling a quiet moment actually works in the film’s favor, adding to its manic charms.
Though it does result in a climax that seems to burst through the finish line and then keep on running towards the horizon – resulting in an overly long running time and a subsequent loss of momentum in the final third.
But perhaps that’s fitting for a story of such pumped-up excess.