Skip to main content

You can’t just kidnap a guy and take his things! That is so illegal!

Pain & Gain
(2013)

It’s been suggested that Pain & Gain is Sturm und Drang-meister Michael Bay’s take on a little arty movie; his version of a Coen Brothers picture, if you will. It’s certainly small by his standards (budget-wise, as opposed to posturing). And there are also recognisable Coens touchstones present; a crime tale of less-than-cerebral criminals whose abysmal plans quickly spiral out of control. It also has the based-on-a-true-story cachet that Fargo didn’t really have at all, actually. And it’s because the plucked-from-the-headlines tale is so bizarre, a litany of cluelessness and ultra-violence, that it sustains the interest. But it’s not for want of Bay forcibly testing our patience. He has no concept of economy, and in the end Pain & Gain outstays its welcome when it should have been short, sharp, and just a little sick.


A purveyor of excess was probably never the right person to bring an account of excess to the screen, even though the marriage looks perfect on paper. You can’t effectively ramp up individual moments when your entire film is ramped up. Every scene is hyper-kinetic or luridly embossed. There’s no room for tonal shifts or ironic comment when what’s on screen is an unfiltered reflection of the director’s bent for wild indulgence. There’s a point where telling us about cocaine withdrawal via an onscreen title isn’t going to help us really differentiate between the Rock’s perspective and any other aggressively extreme we are witnessing (so similar are these on-screen freeze frames to those employed in Burn Notice, I began to wonder if Bay’s sum-total research for his Miami shoot was watching the entire series).


The script, from screenwriting duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the Narnia adaptations and Captain Americas, amongst others), is based on a series of New York Times articles by Pete Collins, and recounts how a trio of bodybuilders (played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie) kidnapped, tortured and attempted to murder a rich gym attendee (Tony Shaloub) in order to extort his fortune. They aren’t blessed with much in the way of grey matter, and at every stage their incompetence is writ large; it takes several kidnap attempts to actually get their man, then weeks of “persuasion” before he signs over his assets. And then, when they try to off him, a succession of bids (car crash, incineration, running him over) fails to do the trick.


While Markus and McFeely employ several effective devices, notably multiple voice-overs used to frequently ironic effect (highlighting that the trio’s would-be genius moves are nothing of the sort), they probably should have pruned their material. The story also encompasses a further scheme that goes gruesomely wrong, and then covers the gang’s trial; there’s something too literal and schematic to the construction, even if everyone involved seems to be under the illusion they are up to something daring and original. One might argue it’s rather tasteless to make light of a tale of murder and dismemberment, but the real problem is of one prevailing approach. No one has anything to say about these guys or this story; there’s no insight into what makes them tick, any more than there is into the assholes they prey upon. To that extent, it’s an example of equal opportunities shallowness. We’re only supposed to take away that the gang are “dumb, stupid fucks”, as Ed Harris’ private detective concisely summarises (Harris nearly brings a bit of class to the proceedings, but it’s a lost battle).


At least the three main actors don’t put a foot wrong. Wahlberg’s turn as Lugo may seem a little familiar, but he’s a natural at playing dumb to comic effect (“Oh my God, this guy understands me” is his genuine response to Ken Jeong’s motivational speaker). Mackie’s Doorbal starts off with some fizz, a steroid-fuelled chatterbox suffering from impotence and a tiny manhood, but as the movie progresses he is rather eclipsed by his co-stars. 


It’s the Rock who steals the show, however. Doyle, a Born Again Christian, is dumb even by his co-conspirators’ standards (“I honestly don’t know how he figures this stuff out” is his awed reaction to Lugo’s plan). His is the most sympathetic character (how likable they were in real life is no doubt debatable, but Bay clearly has affection for his protagonists), and he gets all the best material as he runs the gamut from Jesus Freak to cokehead to armed robber and back again.


The supporting cast is less consistent. Shaloub is suitably despicable, but for some reason his character doesn’t quite attain the comic heights he should; I blame Bay. The director, never one to dodge the obvious, has also chosen comedy performers regardless of whether they are suitable. Rob Corddry is fine as the owner of the gym Lugo works at, but Jeong is just wheeling out the same old act. And Rebel Wilson is excruciatingly annoying. She appears to have walked in from the set of another movie; her dialogue sounds improvised and she may as well be riffing directly to the audience, but not in a good way.


Because Bay can’t slow down, the stronger ideas and elements tend to merge with the weaker ones. In a nice touch, Shaloub is such an incredible jerk that the police don’t take his story seriously. But as the movie progresses the grip on the story slackens; anything seems to get a nod. Scenes are laboured, such as Lugo presenting a neighbourhood watch lecture, or lack impact, as when Doyle barbecuing his victims’ body parts. Or they just show us tired old Bay doing for-the-sake-of-it gross-out (Doyle’s shot-off toe).


The director’s teenage attitude to sex, last seen with the hotties he cast in Transformers, is also present and correct. There are dumb bimbos, fake chests and a plethora of dildos. Is Bay aware of the irony of making a movie about morons that serves to underlines his own similarities with them? “Look how smart and self-aware I am”, he seems to be saying, while his every frame tells a different story. Pain & Gain is his best movie in a decade but even as a low budget personal project it suffers from Bay’s usual glossy ADD bloat. And, as usual, fatigue inevitably sets in.


***

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.