The American Dream gets a serious steroid pump in Michael Bay’s black comedy based on a true story as knuckle-headed as its protagonists.
Hardly the most well-respected director to ever step behind the camera, Bay’s reputation in recent years has sunk to uncharted depths with the mind-numbing Transformers movies. Ahead of the fourth installment of a franchise that’s about as hotly anticipated as an axe to the head, he’s knocked out Pain & Gain, his cheapest film since his 1995 debut Bad Boys.
As slick as it is amoral, Pain & Gain has the look and feel of a 1990s Tony Scott film, wherein ultra-ambitious bodybuilder and Sun Gym staffer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) teams up with fellow personal trainer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackey) and ex-con and recovering cocaine addict Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to kidnap obnoxious businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and force him to sign over his considerable wealth to them. However, they don’t count on wily private detective Ed Du Bois III (Ed Harris) sniffing around, while greed gets the better of them when they decide to go after another target.
As is the way with most films ‘based’ on a true story, Pain & Gain plays fast and loose with the real life events that took place in Miami more than 15 years ago and adopts an exploitative tone all-too familiar in Bay’s films.
Billed as an action comedy, the film can’t seem to decide where its sympathies lie. It portrays Lugo as a meathead with delusions of criminal intelligence and a sense of entitlement to what he sees as the American Dream (ie having lots of cash), but Wahlberg’s likeably wide-eyed performance is such that you find yourself siding with him in spite of the murderous chain of events he sets off.
There’s no doubt that as an experience it’s head and shoulders above the lowest common denominator flatulence of Transformers, but Bay is too one-dimensional a director not to throw in big-breasted babes and violence-for-laughs when he can.
It’s a shame too, as Pain & Gain has moments that really spark, not least of which the sequence in Doorbal’s house in which Bay shows the wheels coming off for the gang by inventively gliding the camera back and forth between Lugo losing it in one room and Doyle and Doorbal getting increasingly out of control in the other.
Wahlberg has one of those faces that lends itself to playing normal working class guys and he does what he does best here as the naive ringleader Lugo. Mackay plays dumb without winking to the audience as Doorbal; a willing participant in Lugo’s scheme who’s too cowardly and greedy to escape when things get out of hand. There’s an amusing irony in the fact the steroids he’s abused to artificially pump up his body have given him erectile dysfunction, although it doesn’t seem to bother flirty nurse Robin (a great turn by Rebel Wilson).
The star of the show, though, is Johnson as the simple-minded Doyle. Originally pegged as a Schwarzenegger wannabe, Johnson has shown himself to be an actor with a lot more range than he’s often given credit for and here finds the right balance between gentleness and psychosis without ever going too big.
The supporting turns are also largely excellent, from Harris’ kind-hearted detective (bringing to mind Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson) to Shalhoub’s deeply unpleasant victim (“you know who invented salads? Poor people”) and Rob Corddry’s pathetic Sun Gym owner John Mese.
In many ways, Pain & Gain is the perfect vehicle for Bay’s testosterone-fuelled style. However, following an unnecessarily long 129 minutes you’re left wondering what another director with more vision and discipline and less bombast would have done with such promising material.
While it is a very odd movie, it still is a bunch of fun, especially if you know what to expect from Bay. However, it’s a true story, and one that he plays up for laughs, and then gets oddly serious. Didn’t like that touch very much. Good review.
Cheers. There’s no denying it’s a lot of fun in places and the performances are largely great it’s just that I wish someone else apart from Bay had been directing.
I actually think it looks really good. But there seems to be a trend at the minute for making movies that are about 30 minutes too long
It’s way too long for sure. It’s well worth a watch and is great in places, just not enough for me.
Nice review mate. Sounds like Bay has once again harmed what could have been a half decent movie. And how freaking big is Dwayne Johnson?!
He’s enormous! I really have a lot of time for Johnson; I think he can really act. The Bayhem gets in the way of the film for me. Cheers for the kind words buddy.
Nice review. I have a natural avoidance for Michael Bay movies so I’ll be skipping this. I can’t really imagine Tony Shalhoub as a villain.
Thanks buddy. Strictly speaking Shalhoub is the victim, although his character is so repellent you have no sympathy for you.
Yeah, I did really like Johnson, and plenty of the supporting roles too. Actually, I liked all the cast, and I keep thinking maybe I underrated it as satire — I get how the way these guys act is similar to the way action heroes act, just that in this film you can see how those kinds of action heroics play out in the ‘real world’ (i.e. as lunking murderous stupidity). So, yeah, on the one hand it’s almost like Michael Bay sending himself up. But what I can’t get over is what you’re talking about, that it still just comes across as really slickly amoral — and that I guess comes down to Michael Bay.
Absolutely. It’s a strange film. It would almost work better if if was a work of fiction, a la Fargo. A curiosity if ever there was one.
My wife wants to watch this tonight… i’m skeptical….
Did you watch it in the end?
We both thought it was terrible… Terrible…
Couldn’t have put it better myself!
Ha ha! Cheers.
I really enjoyed this film, it was Bay, back in his ‘real’ element, reminiscent of ‘Bad Boys’ …
Fair dues. It’s certainly his best for many years. But then that’s not saying a lot when you include Pearl Harbor and Transformers!
‘Pearl Harbor’ was terrible, but I blame Bruckheimer for that!
Well, maybe 50% responsible!
Hahahaha, I’m still not sure about that given how dark ‘Pain and Gain’ was and how light and fluffy ‘Pearl Harbor’ was; but I can understand the Bay haters, you either like him or you don’t!
I might give this a rent though I had no idea it’s such a long movie!