Pain & Gain (2013)
Oh, Michael Bay, where would we be without your mayhem-filled cinematic rampages? Many have tried, but few have been able to match your destructive nihilism. So it was with a degree of wonder that I went into Bay's first non-action film, Pain & Gain, based on the true story of Miami bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (played here by Mark Wahlberg) who, in the mid '90s, kidnapped and extorted a man and went on to live the high life with his friends and partners in crime Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne Johnson). The trailers had remarkably few shootouts and fights, only one explosion... was this really a Michael Bay movie? This was the man for whom the term "Baysplosions" was coined, to describe explosive action for the sake of it. How could he pull off a crime drama? Well, I should've remembered that Bay also made Bad Boys II, which, in addition to being a damn good action movie, was also an exceptional buddy-cop comedy with a gleefully deranged, un-PC attitude and a mean streak a mile long. Bay knows how to do funny movies as well as he does action, and here he leans on that talent to make a very solid (though not great) criminal comedy in the vein of Fargo about stupid, boorish assholes getting in over their heads and getting what's coming to them.
If you've seen the aforementioned Bad Boys II, then you'll spot that film's style all over Pain & Gain. We get lots of shots of Miami's glitz and glamour, with slow-motion nightclub scenes, fast editing, neon, gratuitous hot babes (and hunky guys -- it is about bodybuilders, after all), and Bay's trademark 360-degree Steadicam shot. The tone of the film is also reminiscent of Bad Boys II, this easily being Bay's most comedic film to date. It's less focused on the action than any of his films before it, instead driving the story forward with rapid-fire gags and by having its self-involved characters take turns narrating the film and displaying why they deserve what's coming to them. The gags frequently push the line of good taste, and rely heavily on the buffoonishness of the main characters; for instance, the three guys get lost in a hospital looking for the man they're trying to kill because they can't follow the map, while Paul, despite being a born-again Christian, never figured out that Stryper broke up. It is a far cry from the ideal of perfection and the American Dream that Daniel Lugo loves to go on about.
The three lead actors here all shine. Mark Wahlberg brilliantly captures the utter immorality and psychopathy of Daniel Lugo, a man who would be terrifying if his utter stupidity didn't render him pathetic instead. Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie likewise rock as the meatheads Paul and Adrian, the former being a mess of contradictory religious faith and drug abuse and the latter driven by sexual insecurity due to the damage that 'roids have inflicted upon his penis. These three together make for an often hilarious parody of workout/gym culture and its obsession with physical perfection at any cost. No less unlikable is Tony Shalhoub as Victor, the rich gym regular and kidnap victim who you can't feel sorry for even after the hell that the "Sun Gym Gang" puts him through. He's the quintessential old Florida Jew with nothing to do but complain. Australian comic Rebel Wilson and Israeli model Bar Paly serve as the love interests for Adrian and Paul, the former a nurse with an overactive libido and the latter a Romanian beauty queen with delusions of being involved in espionage. While Paly doesn't get much to do beyond look good, Wilson gets some of the funniest moments in the film, such as when she's recounting Adrian's sexual impotence for the court at the end.
In a way, Pain & Gain could be seen as something of a companion to last month's Spring Breakers. Both were thrilling cinematic experiences, but while Spring Breakers used its setup to voice a dark critique of the wrapping of the American dream in gangster attitude and the effect that this has had on our culture, Pain & Gain instead invites the viewer to laugh at these sorts of people. The only morally good character here is Ed Du Bois, the private investigator played by Ed Harris, and he doesn't show up until halfway through. Until then and for some time after, Pain & Gain involves us in the bumbling schemes of three stupid yet dangerous jocks who really want to live the good life, and have taken the way of life of the gym and applied it to the world of guns, speedboats, death threats, and chainsaws.
If I had any problem with this film, it was that it was surprisingly slow-paced for a Michael Bay movie. After the thrilling intro, this film takes a bit of time to get rolling again. Furthermore, the voiceovers from the various main characters eventually became grating, making it feel as though Bay couldn't find a better way to convey story exposition. Lastly, despite the film taking place in 1994-95, the film was plagued with anachronisms, ranging from modern automobiles to modern brand logos to billboards with website URLs on them. These were frequent enough to pull me out of the story, reminding me again and again that I was watching a movie.
Score: 4 out of 5
While not as deep as it could have been, it makes up for that by being gut-bustingly hilarious in its exploration of crime paying some stupid, two-bit crooks with a boot in the ass. Michael Bay is capable of making good films, which only makes me wish he did more films like this and less like Transformers.