(3 / 5)
Before we see anything, before even the whirling stars of the Paramount logo form their triumphant arc above the idealized mountain peak, we hear the agonized grunts and yells of a man indulging in brutal self-abuse.
Then comes the money shot: Mark Wahlberg doing full-body sit-ups from a leg rest halfway up a twenty-foot billboard of an Atlas-like figure pumping iron. The camera tilts disorientingly in over-exposed close up as Wahlberg sweats and strains to a chorus of police sirens. The next thing you know, the world tilts right way up with a silent scream of “Fuck!” as armed units arrive in the street below sending Wahlberg scrambling across rooftops, past AC units and through clothing lines.
After throwing himself from a second floor hotel balcony into a dumpster, he sprints in slow-mo down the street, accompanied by a simple introductory v.o.: “My name is Daniel Lugo and I believe in fitness.” Enter super slo-mo, intro to SWAT team van, smash cut to credits. If this opening paragraph sounds overly descriptive, it’s only because Pain & Gain is a film that lends itself to adjectives: big, bold and with lots of (steroid shrunken) balls.
The small, personal movie of a director whose small personal movies involve a $26 million budget and big-name actors like Wahlberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, not to mention the up-and-coming Anthony Mackie (shortly to be appearing as superhero Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and esteemed character actors, Golden Globe and Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub and Oscar nominee Ed Harris (as a craggy P.I.).
Michael Bay, the director, is Hollywood royalty: the Transformers trilogy alone grossed more than $2.5 billion (yes, with a “b”). With a fourth installment already in the pipeline, who can blame him if he wants to take some time off to adapt the intimate, “unfortunate” real-life story of three bodybuilders who, in the mid ’90s, kidnapped, tortured, extorted, and, in some cases, even murdered the wealthy patrons of their gym?
The words “understated” and “subtle” are not in Bay’s cinematic vocabulary. Never the critics’ darling, his “movies” are unashamedly aimed at the teenage boy demographic, but could this actually be, well, “good”? In a few words, “sorta, yeah”. In a few more words…
Our protagonist and, indeed, part-time narrator in this testosterone-soaked work of semi-fiction is Wahlberg’s Lugo, a small-time con artist turned devoted gym rat. Wahlberg is at his dramatic best in films that give him a simple motivation – be it to catch crooks (The Departed), make it in the porn industry (Boogie Nights), or just laze around on the couch (Ted) – and in that regard Pain & Gain plays to his strengths.
Lugo believes that his love of fitness makes him entitled to the good life – “insert quote” – and his skewed moral compass means that he’s willing to do whatever’s necessary to make it. For Lugo, the world is quickly divided into “do’ers” and “don’t’ers” and it’s this overly simplistic, black-and-white philosophy that leads him into some pretty morally reprehensible shit.
When Tony Shalhoub’s slimily entitled businessman makes his appearance at the gym, Lugo sees a way to make money without breaking a sweat. Together with two fellow fitness freaks, trainer Doorbal (Mackie) and “reformed” former drug addict Doyle (Johnson), Lugo sets out to rob businessman Kershaw of everything he’s got. The only issue is they’re all three of them idiots.
Rather than settle for a straight-forward criminal idiots comedy – like Woody Allen’s Small-Time Crooks or perhaps Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – Bay seems to be genuinely interested in exploring what makes these meatheads tick. Doorbal, for instance, has been rendered impotent by years of steroid abuse. The unconditional understanding shown to him by his oddball nurse, Robin, played by Rebel Wilson, despite his condition, shows that dripping machismo isn’t everything, but these idiots are already set on wheels towards tragedy.
Bay’s recognizable shaky-cam remains intact, though here it feels like a stylistic choices, as opposed to simply a means by which to wring every drop of adrenaline out of each frenetic frame, and Commuity‘s Ken Jeong gets a bit part as an obnoxious motivational speaker (as my review of The Hangover III testified, he’s better in small doses).
Lugo and Co. are certainly not sympathetic characters per se, but, with a multitude of accompanying voice-overs, we more or less understand why they do what they do: Not gifted with great intellect or innate talent, all they can do is sculpt their bodies, become buff, pumped.
Things get caught in explosions and shootouts, the usual Bay fodder, as the film progresses. Nevertheless, Pain & Gain has an interesting thematic question to cover: the idea that all men (or at least most) are created equal, physically speaking, and it’s through our actions, our struggles, that we achieve our potential. The struggle of Lugo et al. to define their bodies is therefore a struggle to define their lives.
That may sound overly portentous, but, compared to 2 Guns, my most recent review – also starring Mark Wahlberg – this is surprisingly meaty stuff. It’s a difficult proposition, generating depth while commenting on a lack of it – more acclaimed filmmakers have fallen down on the job, like Baz Luhrmann with Great Gatsby – but Bay just about pulls it off.
The film also provides something of a dramatic breakout for Dwayne Johnson, who gives a deft turn parodying his former meathead persona as a tormented ex-con. It may be too soon to predict as career reinvention in the mold of Matthew McConaughey, but it certainly outstrips the likes of Fast and Furious 6.
The protagonists in Pain & Gain are a bunch of roid-riddled, semi-losers who do horrific, reprehensible things for the sake of money and yet you end up caring about them for a bit: they’re shallow and they’re in over their heads without an ounce of complexity in their bodies, but, compared to Pearl Harbor and Transformers, these are Chekovian character portraits.
With production on his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adaptation that no one asked for ongoing, Bay might be showing a return to form (in this case, regrettable), but Pain & Gain shows that he’s capable of more than just films for teenage boys (though, with violence and nudity aplenty, this newest release isn’t exactly going to turn them off).
It may be garish, gory, and a tad on the nose – again, not to flog a dead gym bunny, but this is the sort of subtlety you expect from the man behind both Bad Boys – but not only has Pain & Gain already doubled its production costs, some of the professional critics have actually admitted to liking it. It has a 49% rating on IMDb and, when you factor in the number of reviewers who could never countenance a Michael Bay flick, that’s some fairly impressive feedback.
Michael Bay has never apologized about making films for teenage boys. I’ve certainly shown him my fair share of contempt on this blog – it’s easy to hate the man behind the generic $250 million blockbuster currently clogging up cinema screens – but, you know what, I like Pain & Gain. I like Pain & Gain a good bit. Who knows, maybe even the Transformers franchise is worth another look…