, 129 m., 2013
Mark Wahlberg (Daniel Lugo), Dwayne Johnson (Paul Doyle), Anthony Mackie (Adrian Doorbal), Tony Shalhoub (Victor Kershaw), Ed Harris (Ed DuBois), Rob Corddry (John Mese), Bar Paly (Sorina Luminita), Rebel Wilson (Robin Peck), Ken Jeong (Johnny Wu), Michael Rispoli (Frank Griga), Keili Lefkovitz (Krisztina Furton), Emily Rutherfurd (Carolyn ‘Cissy’ DuBois), Larry Hankin (Pastor Randy), Tony Plana (Captain Lopez), Peter Stormare (Dr. Bjornson). Directed by Michael Bay and produced by Bay, Ian Bryce, Donald De Line. Screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, based on the magazine articles by Pete Collins.
Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain is something like the Thin Red Line of crime comedies (or would that be Martin Scorsese’s Casino?), with the attention span of someone going through Riddlin withdrawal. With its multiple perspective narration and hyperkinetic style, I’m reminded of that description of Christopher Walken’s character in Tony Scott’s Domino (2005): “like a ferret on crystal meth.” Still, this is the most coherently-filmed Bay film since…I dunno, Bad Boys (1995)?
The plot, based on an astonishing true story. In late 1994 through mid-summer 1995, a bodybuilder and white collar criminal named Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) was working at the Sun Gym in Miami, Florida. After an impressive job interview, he was hired and climbed the ranks quickly, managing to “improve” the general atmosphere of the gym and its clientele’s experiences through innovation, drive and a strong work ethic. Then his path crossed fatefully with Columbian Jew Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, formerly of TV’s Monk). Kershaw had everything and Lugo got sick of having the ambition of a 1%er and the livelihood of a 99%er. Revved up by a self improvement seminar infused with AA-cribbed slogans led by diminutive Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong, who plays arguably the most insane character in the Hangover trilogy – which is saying something), Lugo set upon the world with a new drive, new attitude and his same old influences of “Rocky, Michael Corleone and Scarface” (telling, no?) to conquer his chosen milieu.
With steroid-abusing fellow gym rat Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) in tow, Lugo recruited ex-con turned born-again Christian Paul Doyle (pro wrestler turned actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to his cause to con, torture and even kill Kershaw in their collective pursuit of the “American Dream.” Indeed, the trio of meat heads (Lugo the relative master mind, Adrian the yes man, and Paul the sensitive “weak link” as a title card later identifies him) utilize their rather, ahem, limited skill sets to get revenge on what they perceive to be the injustice of “criminal prick” Kershaw’s prosperity and success. Through their trials and tribulations they further recruit Lugo’s scummy boss (Rob Cordry), a Russian stripper (Bar Paly) and an overweight steroid nurse (Rebel Wilson) to their efforts. Kershaw, for his part, finds no traction with a police investigation and goes the private investigator route (via Ed Harris’ retired cop) to get to the bottom of who kidnapped him, tortured him, and forced him to hand over all of his possessions and money to them in order to exact what he deems legal revenge.
Michael Bay has had a rather, ahem, hit-and-miss career over the past two decades or so, beginning in music videos and short video documentaries before turning to his big name Hollywood directing career. From his big screen debut, cop-and-robber comedy Bad Boys (1995) and its eventual, inevitably much-maligned sequel Bad Boys II (2003), to the entertaining Nicolas Cage/Sean Connery Alcatraz-set action extravaganza The Rock (1996), the headache-inducing Armageddon (1998), the mentally challenged historical romance epic Pearl Harbor (2001), the somewhat intelligent and entertaining high concept sci-fi action film The Island (2005), the very entertaining action-figure/cartoon adaptation Transformers (2007) and its godawful, depression-inducing sequels Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and Dark of the Moon (2011) – which collectively made me almost never wanna see movies again – Bay has cultivated a reputation as Hollywood’s go-to hyperkinetic big-guns, big-tits, no-brains action filmmaker.
Let’s just get this out of the way right now. Pain & Gain is racist (stereotypes abound), sexist (Bay never met a woman he didn’t want to objectify in some way, shape or form), homophobic (because gay jokes and bashing is hilarious) – not to mention about a hundred other categories of politically incorrect that have yet to be given “ic’s” and “ist’s”. That said, I’m pleased to report that, so help me, this film has all of the joy that can come from a well-made Michael Bay production and none of the headaches.
In its darkly-tinged (indeed, at times, flat-out grim), violent but often laugh-out-loud funny take on what we keep being reminded is a true story, it’s rather startling to find a moral center that recalls Fargo (1996) or A Simple Plan (1998). Via the spot-on and charismatic performance of Dwayne Johnson as the crestfallen and born-again and further tempted Paul, the film manages to find a thread of humanity among the darkness and chaos. Wahlberg and Mackie, on the other hand, are just a couple of knuckleheads who drown in their own vanity and ambition.
That being said, if they begin the film as somewhat likable and only gradually do we realize the film is laughing at them more than with them, by the end they have become the monsters they perceive Kershaw and an ill-fated porn king (Michael Rispoli) to be. This leaves us in something of a moral quagmire. Are we supposed to go along for the ride or concern ourselves with the humanity of this trio of all-American criminals? Can we do both? Not the kind of questions we expect to ask of a Michael Bay movie, but thanks to a sharp screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who know of darkly comic crime stories (they were behind John Dahl’s You Kill Me in 2007), the film keeps things in perspective, as it were. As dark, violent social-satire in the vein of Natural Born Killers (1994) or Savages (2012), with its ADD-afflicted style and intricate plot, I was reminded often of a half-hearted Oliver Stone film. As Michael Bay films go, this is almost as good as it gets.
Note: It’s interesting to see that the actual criminals this film focuses on are shown in comparison to the actors prior to the end credits as we get one of those “where are they now” title card scrolls, and not a single one of them seems to be even the same race as the actor portraying them with the possible exception of Kershaw himself. Some names were changed to protect identities.