Pain and Gain

Friday 03rd January 2014

Here’s where I have to eat my hat… or at least eat a small piece of it. Why? Because here is a film directed by the spawn of Satan himself (Michael Bay) that I didn’t hate. Yes, I am a big enough man to admit it; I liked Pain and Gain. In fact, I thought it was really good. How is this possible? I don’t know. Either Bay had a stroke and can no longer pronounce the words “explosion” and “product placement” or he’s been hiding some genuine directorial skill from us all along. Whatever the hell happened, I’m quite pleased it did, because this is a truly entertaining film.

However, making one enjoyable film doesn’t make up for all the mountainous, gargantuan, monolithic piles of faeces that Bay has been mercilessly shoveling towards us for the past sixteen years (discounting Bad Boys and The Rock which were saved by charismatic actors Will Smith and Nicholas Cage respectively). Such absolute clangers as Armageddon, Pearl Harbour, Bad Boys II and all the Transformers movies are surely enough to consign Bay to movie director hell even if he suddenly transforms into Clint Eastwood and then makes ten films a year until he’s a thousand years old. Yes, Bay is doomed. But I still liked Pain and Gain.

Of course, I can’t give all the credit to Michael Bay. Mostly because I don’t want to. But also because Pain and Gain stars two of the most heroic actors of our era; Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson. Neither man is likely to win an Oscar anytime soon, but if you want someone with real screen presence who can portray a larger-than-life character with humour and panache, there’s nobody better. Marky Mark never fails to entertain with his trademark combination of simultaneous anger and confusion. He injects humour and energy into every action film he graces; from lighter fare like Four Brothers and Two Guns to the gravely serious Shooter. And when I say he won’t be winning an Oscar anytime soon, there are those (myself included) who actually thought he deserved one for his performance as Micky Ward in 2010’s The Fighter. He even managed to make Ted good! What other actor could pull off the part of a grown man torn between his talking teddy bear and Mila Kunis? Face it, Wahlberg is a boss. You want to be him (as do I).

Having said that, if there’s one man I would like to be even more than Mark Wahlberg, it would be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The man who single-handedly saved the Fast and Furious franchise from the boredom it had long since descended into. The man who courageously elevated the G.I. Joe franchise from the level of a noxious hangover shit clogging up a motorway service station toilet to a mildly offensive floater left in your downstairs loo by a forgetful guest (yes, in this metaphor The Rock is your beloved Toilet Duck). Most impressive of all; the man who can almost trick you into thinking you still like wrestling. What a hero.

Yes, Pain and Gain’s cast is as strong as it looks. And if you’ve seen the biceps on show in the trailer, that’s pretty strong. While Wahlberg and Johnson get most of the laughs, it’s Anthony Mackey who brings an emotional edge to the film; he plays an aspiring bodybuilder with erectile dysfunction due to steroid use. I would have liked to see Mackey get more screen time as his character is probably the most compelling but the film is ultimately all about the insane antics of the two leads. Tony Shalhoub is great as the victim of the disastrous kidnapping orchestrated by Wahlberg’s character Daniel Lugo. Shalhoub displays just the right amount of arrogance, ensuring we’re torn between sympathy and hatred for his character. Ed Harris is as cool and suave as you expect Ed Harris to be, although he’s underused here as private detective Ed DuBois.

I did have a hard time believing that Pain and Gain is based on a true story, even though Bay subtly reminds us with a caption reading “This is still a true story” as events escalate into chaos halfway through. The film revolves around a trio of bodybuilders brought together by Lugo to kidnap a millionaire and force him to hand over all his worldly wealth. Lugo picks Victor Kershaw as the victim because he’s a sanctimonious and vindictive prick who (in Lugo’s opinion) doesn’t deserve the riches he’s amassed. Lugo believes his plan will work because he’s “watched a lot of movies,” always a recipe for success… of course, nothing goes to plan and Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackey leave a trail of bodies in their wake as they careen from one disaster to the next. Highlights include: Wahlberg panicking and grabbing a set of dumbbells to “get a pump” after accidentally killing a man; The Rock robbing an armoured car with a golf club; and Mackey dressed as a ninja leaping out the back of a van and completely missing his intended target. The laughs come thick and fast in Pain and Gain, all of them at the expense of the idiotic main characters. They are trying desperately to take a shortcut to the American Dream but everything they do is laughably moronic. Even after they achieve some success you know it’s only a matter of moments before they goof it up and end up back where they started, or even lower.

The Rock’s character Paul Doyle is easily the most entertaining, probably because he’s the dumbest. He starts the film as a reformed convict, on the wagon and feeling good about his future. Doyle comes across as a lovable dope who’s made a few mistakes. However, as proceedings get underway Lugo takes advantage of Doyle’s eager-to-please nature and he soon develops a dangerous coke addiction and starts punching people. If you’ve seen any of the promotional material for this film you’ll know that Dwayne Johnson’s arms are probably the worst things on earth to be hit in the face with after an angry Bison and a derailed train. Tony Shalhoub gets KO’d by a massive punch from The Rock. He is now a man I admire.

Pain and Gain is inherently as stupid as its source material forces it to be. A plan so obviously retarded can only end one way, but although nothing about the film’s climax is surprising I still couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Despite Lugo’s dream exploding into wreckage before his eyes, he remains blindly optimistic; “Life’s gonna give me another set. I know it will.” I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Pain and Gain is a pretty clever criticism of the American Dream itself. This is what happens when people without the intelligence or work ethic to achieve success are told they deserve it just for being American. This film is a criticism of American culture at its lowest and most pervasive; if morons are bombarded with MTV and gangster movies their whole lives they will inevitably develop a skewed sense of morality combined with unrealistic monetary aspirations. And yet, it was made by Michael Bay, a guy who pushes the most blatantly fanatical pro-American, capitalist, materialist agenda imaginable in every other film he’s ever made. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Michael Bay had stars and stripes tattooed all over his dick, and had sex with his groupies using a diamond-studded platinum condom frosted with cocaine on a bed made out of hundred dollar bills.

So is Bay finally waking up and getting a whiff of his own bullshit?

No.

In fact, he’s already working on the next Transformers. I hereby predict that Pain and Gain is nothing more than a small gleaming speck of shininess on a career otherwise heavily coated in manure. But I also think a lot of critics have unfairly derided Pain and Gain purely because of Bay’s name; they haven’t done justice to the film itself. Surely we should judge every film on its own merits and flaws, not solely on the name of one person involved in its production. Films are made by huge teams of people, not just directors. To dismiss Pain and Gain just because it’s directed by Bay is unfair to everyone else involved in the film; and trust me, in this instance the cast deserve some credit. I shudder to think how many eggs Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackey cracked into their protein shakes during the making of this film, let alone how many bicep curls they did…

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