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.


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…