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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.


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