Movie Review

Movie Review – Pain & Gain


– Summary –

Director :   Michael Bay
Year Of Release :   2013
Principal Cast :  Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony Mackie, Rob Corddry, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Bar Paly, Michael Rispoli, Tony Plana, Emily Rutherford, Larry Hankin, Peter Stormare, Brian Stepanek.
Approx Running Time :  129 Minutes
Synopsis:  A trio of bodybuilders decide to kidnap a wealthy businessman, in order to steal his riches for themselves. Troubles is, they didn’t bank on him wanting it all back.
What we think :  As an ode to criminal stupidity, they doesn’t come much stupider than Pain & Gain. The film deftly skips over boring reality to deliver shocks, crudity and plenty of Bay action, just the way you like it (or not). The script is a cracker, lacking subtlety but bringing an assured weight to its thunderous pectorals. Wahlberg and Johnson are key to the film’s success, as they both bring their A-game to what is, effectively, B-grade material, but coupled with Bay’s rock-star camerawork and a pounding score, you hardly have time to notice the lack of logic, common sense or physical imperfection that sprays at you like an on-heat monkey. Definitely fun, but hardly coherent.


Be a doer. Don’t be a don’ter.

Pain & Gain is classified as a “smaller” Michael Bay film. The director himself said it was a smaller film than almost any he’s done previously; indeed, you’d have to go back almost to Bad Boys and The Rock to find a film which complements Pain & Gain’s more small-scope aesthetic. That’s not to say Pain & Gain is without flair or Bay’s usual pyrotechnics, because there’s flair aplenty within the walls of this crime caper flick, it’s just that for the first time in three films and nearly half a decade, Bay doesn’t have transforming robots to play with. Initially, Pain & Gain was going to be made between the second and third Transformers films, although Paramount optioned to kick off Dark Of The Moon’s release date way sooner than Bay (or anyone else, for that matter) had expected. Shelved while Dark Of The Moon went into production, Paramount have now released Bay’s love-letter to the caper movie before the director kicks off work on Transformers 4: in calling this film “smaller”, defies the very description of small, since it’s all balls-to-the-wall flash-bang, in that inimitable Michael Bay style. So – and I’m lowering myself to obvious humor here, I know – how painful is Pain & Gain, or do we.. er gain something from its existence? Is it worth the celluloid (or BluRay disc) it’s authored on, or is it merely another explosion-porn gratuity we must endure before Optimus Prime strides across the screen once more?

I keep telling you guys to put on a shirt, and this is what I get?
I keep telling you guys to put on a shirt, and this is what I get?

Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a recently released convicted fraudster who picks up work at Florida’s Sun Gym, where he makes a name for himself transforming the gym from a retirement village dump, into a Place To Be Seen for the fitness elite. However, not content with his lot in life, and seeing a bunch of wealthy folks come in and out of the doors, Lugo plans to make it rich (the American Dream, y’all) by kidnapping a client and stealing all their wealth; a plan he arrives at after attending a motivational seminar run by successful entrepreneur Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong). One of his bodybuilding training partners, Noel Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) agrees to go along with the plan, and Lugo invites a third partner into the ring, in the form of born-again Christian, and fellow ex-con, Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson). Their target: Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a slimy, restaurant-owning businessman who not only admits to shonky business practices, but who waves his wealth in front of everyone and is a complete and utter creep. Lugo also enlists recent illegal immigrant and aspiring actress Sorina (Par Baly) as their “honey pot”, while gym owner John Mese (Rob Corddry) agrees to notarize the paperwork for the illegal acquisition of property and titles. After kidnapping Kershaw, and successfully taking all he has, the crew unsuccessfully kill their victim, leaving him partially crippled but alive to seek revenge. Enlisting the aide of “retired” private detective Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) to hunt down the trio, and build a case for the Miami PD, Kershaw sets about reclaiming his stolen property.

Yup. it's exactly as it seems.
Yup. it’s exactly as it seems.

Pain & Gain gained notoriety in certain circles for apparently glamorizing the criminal element of this true story – true in the sense that a lot of the basic premise actually happened, although a lot of what Bay puts on screen is fictionalized or only partially true in the least – whether you agree with Bay’s desire to make these criminals more sympathetic to the audience, to somehow desensitize their actions by wallowing in their excess and warped sense of morals, or not is probably not going to affect your appreciation and enjoyment of what is, effectively, a rollicking good time at the movies. Ethical issues aside (and since this is Michael Bay, were they ever really in consideration?), I really enjoyed Pain & Gain as a brash, brassy caper film that subverts reality and convention to provide a stylish, almost off-balance feeling of hyper-reality that works largely in the story’s favor. Will Pain & Gain appeal to everyone? No, I doubt a lot of the conservative crowd will find much to applaud in this movie, and I would say a fair few law and order advocates might take umbrage with the cavalier way Bay treats what is a very serious crime, but the overall feeling I got from the film is pumped up, adrenaline fueled idiocy of morons trying to live the American Dream.

Talk dude, of I'm gonna sign you up for another season of Monk!
Talk dude, of I’m gonna sign you up for another season of Monk!

While the film prides itself on being “a true story”, as with most Hollywood versions of the truth there’s more to Pain & Gain than what Bay puts up on the screen. Composite characters, the removal of several main players, and a pumped up muscular bending of reality all apply to Pain & Gain’s slick Hollywood veneer, as Bay and his screenwriters Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely run rampant through one of the most bizarre crimes ever seen in the state of Florida. The core trio of Lugo, Doyle and Doorbal are made out to be merely incompetent, blundering idiots – led by Lugo – whereas in reality they weren’t so stupid. Oh they were stupid, but the film plays down their violence in favor of the Weekend At Bernie’s style humor. Pain & Gain has moments of levity, in particular the inclusion of Aussie comedienne Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect) as Doorbal’s eventual wife, while Tony Shalhoub has an absolute blast playing the primary target of our criminals’ plot, Victor Kershaw. There’s also plenty of comedic gold to be mined from watching Dwayne Johnson flounder through this crime as a born-again Christian trying to walk the path of right and not-quite, and Johnson makes it look utterly effortless.

Big as my arm. Swear it!
Big as my arm. Swear it!

Indeed, where the film shines is when Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackie are on screen together; their on-screen chemistry is fantastic, sparring off each others’ energy and providing much of the necessary spark Bay requires to keep his narrative thrumming along. Wahlberg, central to the film as Lugo, does that crazy-stupid schtick really well, although I do think he was trying a little too hard as the film wound up to its inevitable conclusion; Lugo is too big in the head to believe he’ll ever be caught, much less prosecuted, so his eventual capture (alluded to right at the open of the film, so not really a spoiler) comes as a shock to him. Wahlberg’s confident enough within himself as an actor to give Lugo a vulnerability within that braggart attitude, deluded as he is by pumping iron to perfection, and it was a joy to watch the man work. Anthony Mackie has a role that’s strangely muted, in as much as his character never really seems essential to the main plot; Doorbal is portrayed as a hanger-on to Lugo and Doyle, and whether this is accurate or not, does make his character feel somewhat superfluous to the overall outcome. Johnson, as Doyle, absolutely kills it. Nails it. In fact, Johnson makes this film his own – he outshines virtually everyone else on the screen (except Shalhoub, who is the best thing in this film) and delivers a performance that’s both empathetic and hilarious in equal doses.

Every film can be improved by a bikini contest. Thankyou, Michael Bay.
Every film can be improved by a bikini contest. Thankyou, Michael Bay.

Perhaps less adequate is Ed Harris (among one of a few Bay alumni appearing here, having worked with the director before on The Rock) as retired detective Ed DuBois, a character essential to the downfall of our dimwitted trio, and yet strangely underdeveloped by the screenplay. Harris is solid enough, but DuBois needed to be better worked into the story from an earlier point, so as to remain relevant throughout. As it is, Harris becomes just “another cop” trying to break the case. Rob Corddry does a terrific job as gym owner John Mese, in a performance far removed from a lot of his straight-up comedy stuff. Special note to Ken Jeong – in this film, you were completely tolerable, because you’re only in it for about five minutes, and thoroughly restrained from the usual screeching schtick you get to work on. Thank you Lord.

Stealing his man-bag led to disaster for Stuart.
Stealing his man-bag led to disaster for Stuart.

Pain & Gain seems to ramble along for its opening twenty minutes; it sets up the key players, gets the wheels in motion, and undertakes to get to “the kidnap” quickly, which Bay does with snappy editing and razor-slick film effects. However, once the kidnap works, and the boys have Kershaw back at their lair, the film tends to slump a little, spending a great deal of time with Kershaw trying to get under Doyle’s skin in order to escape. At first this is see-it-coming funny, but after a while it becomes a little tiresome, until Kershaw is “killed” by the bumbling idiots and effects his “escape”. Then, the film really picks up, as the boys’ plans start to unravel with increasing speed. Bay’s command of multiple plot threads and intercutting between narratives is breathtaking in its elegance, although some might say bombastic opulence, instead. Granted, Pain & Gain does have plenty of Bay-isms firmly entrenched within the framework of the story: the raunchy bikini-clad girls, the strippers, the drugs and rock-n-roll, the plush landscapes and properties and fast luxury cars, are all sprinkled throughout the film in liberal doses. Bar Paly should have signed on to this film with a per-square-inch-of-skin clause, because she shows enough of it throughout the film to satisfy any fan of Bay’s “from the bottom up” filming mentality. Indeed, there’s a homophobic, misogynistic bent to Bay’s work here that, while immediately amusing in the beer-swilling kinda way, is actually somewhat disturbing. Cue the morgue boob-molesting sequence in Bad Boys II by comparison: Bay’s a teenage boy who’ll cop a feel (figuratively and literally) regardless of how icky it is.

Every film also needs a small nuclear detonation to make it cooler. Thankyou, Michael Bay!
Every film also needs a small nuclear detonation to make it cooler. Thankyou, Michael Bay!

All that said, Pain & Gain delivers some pretty decent entertainment, even if only on the most base, superficial level. The film’s point is lost amongst the pumping muscles, fast cars and rapid-fire dialog, and much of Bay’s direction seems more like a drug-fueled music video than an actual film (is it just me, or does the man contractually have to include small dogs in each of his films somewhere?) but Pain & Gain is what it is: loud, hyper-kinetic, hyperbolic and at times completely out of control. As an avowed fan of Bay’s work, I’m pleased to say I did enjoy it (as much as I probably shouldn’t!) and I’d consider it to be his best work in years, at least from a constructive, cohesive narrative sense. It’s not a great film overall, though, in terms of actual content, and I dare say upon subsequent re-watching it’ll lose a lot of spark thanks to style-over-substance rather than intelligence and relevance.

Escape wasn't an option. Survival at any cost!
Escape wasn’t an option. Survival at any cost!

Pain & Gain marks a return to smaller, more straightforward film-making for a man who delighted us with The Rock’s Connery/Cage testosterone and Armageddon’s Liv Tyler weeping. Frankly, I’m glad Bay took the time to make this film. It’s a kind of release from the Transformers, in a way, a smaller film with less apocalyptic standards to uphold. Much like Bad Boys II or the latter half of Armageddon, Pain & Gain does drift towards gratuity rather than taut film-making, and Bay’s penchant for excess does shine through here and there (strip club scenes numbered in the double figures, I’m sure!) but the overall effect of the film’s crazy, half-true story is one that smacks of the definitive “only in America” tabloid magazine fodder. Pain & Gain is pumped up, ready for a solid set, and dripping with the sweaty musk of a whole slew of workout strain.


16 thoughts on “Movie Review – Pain & Gain

  1. Great review, Rodney. I liked this a lot more than I thought I would as well. I delivered on the stupidity, managed to skip the boring bits, and kept everything interesting. Did not expect that from Bay.
    My recent post What’s On The Box?! – Your Guide To What’s On TV

    1. Ha ha, glad to hear you liked it. It most definitely delivered on the stupidity, didn't it!! I was chuckling away to myself on numerous occasions (the scene with Johnson BBQing a hand was a particular highlight!) and enjoyed it a lot more than most. Cheerd mate!

  2. Mark Kermode's radio review made me laugh – he basically called it one of the worst things he had ever had the misfortune of seeing and likened it to swimming in sewerage. As someone who finds Michael Bay borderline reprehensible I'll no doubt give this one a miss as I know from past experience that Mark Wahlberg and comedy don't mix well. I also thought the trailer was a joke – like the fake trailers that ran alongside the Grindhouse films… oops!

    Glad you liked it though Rodney!
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    1. That's what got me too, Ruth; this is a film based on a true story. Obviously some of the finer details have been smoothed over, removed or remodelled to suit the film, but as crazy as it seems, it's all true!!! Thanks for droppping in!!

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