Pain and Gain (2013)

Now THAT’S…more like it. As any even remotely consistent reader of my film reviews will note, I have an undeniable ‘Love/Hate’ relationship with Michael Bay, and his flicks. On one hand, I love his slick visuals, his Tony Scott-inspired editing, his hot (but admittedly shallow and sexist) manner of ‘shooting’ women, and of course, his obsessive compulsion to blow shit up. On the other hand, the scripts he uses are often idiotic, he celebrates yet vilifies minorities, he feels that filling a screen with fast-moving, incomprehensible shit counts as competent ‘shot composition’…and he just seems like an arrogant douchebag. That being said…I have to admit that his latest release somehow takes all the points above, both negative and positive, and rolls them nicely into this ‘Based on a true story’ tale of dark and violent comedy.
The flick follows a dim-witted, but feverishly ambitious body builder named Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) who, due to his own dissatisfaction with Life, embarks on a violent but often hilarious crime spree. Aiding Lugo in this caper is a steroid-abusing moron named Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and a gigantic Born Again Christian named Doyle (Dwayne Johnson). They plan to kidnap a loud-mouth rich asshole named Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and force him to sign over all of his cash and assets. At first, these jackasses actually pull off the heist (after many a bumbling attempt), but due to certain character weakness and intellectually-delayed actions, it all goes swirling…culminating in a gruesome (but largely accidental) double murder. At that point, an elderly private investigator (Ed Harris) leads the charge. on behalf of the victim, in hunting these guys down and bringing them to much deserved justice.
In many respects, ‘Pain and Gain’ strongly reminds me of two other films out there in Movie Land, those being Tony Scott’s ‘Domino’ (2005) and Peter Berg’s ‘Very Bad Things’ (1998), two supremely under-rated flicks, in my humble opinion. Both films carry a similar, high-concept, over-saturated, hyper-realistic look (‘Domino’ especially) and Michael Bay brings much the same aesthetic; while also tapping into their pitch-black comedy ‘stylings’ ; bringing an over-the-top absurdity to the gruesome criminality on boisterous display. Also in keeping with ‘Domino’, Bay gets cheeky and experimental with his edits and ‘additions’; funny ‘pop-up’ captions and bizarre visuals spring up periodically throughout this flicks run-time.
Something that worked (for me) was the inter-play between the 3 ‘leads’. The disfunctional chemistry of these dip-shit meatheads is great, especially when they make prominent reference to Wahlbergs ‘brilliant’ Lugo character, only to show him a scene or two later coming across as an overly-confident but under-intelligent goof, who happens to get lucky from time to time. Dwayne Johnson is one of those actors who can (now) capably steal any scene that he’s in, with his imposing bulk and uncanny comic timing, and here is no different. Seeing him loafing around in white overalls (an 80s style skateboard tucked under his massive arm), stunned with wide-eyed naivety and awe as their crime wave escalates is a hilarious sight. When he ‘falls off the wagon’ and turns into a rampaging coke-monster, things only get funnier. There’s a sequence where Doyle thinks it’s time to take on a ‘score’ himself, only to have his ill-conceived armored car heist degenerate into something resembling Nicolas Cage’s Loony Tunes-like ‘attempted robbery/flight from prosecution’ in Raising Arizona (1987). This one just happens to feature a blown-off toe.
Speaking of removed extremities, this is another aspect where ‘Pain and Gain’ resembles the aforementioned dark comedies. Both ‘Very Bad Things’ and ‘Domino’ feature scenes in which people and bodies are disgustingly dismembered, and the horrible act is somehow effectively played for laughs, This one adds to this theme by introducing the concept of severed hands and a BBQ, played squarely to the ‘gallows humor’ crowd. Not everyone will appreciate this approach, but if crass dark humor works for you…then you’re in ‘the right theatre’.

When this one was first released,I seem to remember seeing some critics come down on Bay’s now expected over-the-top style…but I have to say that it seems that they missed the point. Wahlbergs Lugo character lives in a delusional, cartoon-like reality, surrounded by vacuous, over-developed ‘action-figure’ caricatures of people, and dreams of unreasonable self-entitlement, and the ‘flash’ of this flicks ‘execution’ represents THAT mindset perfectly.

As I said at the beginning, this is EXACTLY the type of movie for a style-over-substance director like Bay. Seeing him working with a smaller budget, in this case, gives me hope that the man may, one day, grace us with a film that is actually good, through and through. But, as we’ve seen before, when the studios hand him a ‘blank cheque’ for a film’s budget, the effect is usually something akin to giving an already over-stimulated child a hefty dose of processed sugar…the result may be amusing for awhile, but in the end…no good can come of it.
I got EXACTLY what I hoped for, and expected, from ‘Pain and Gain’. It’s a flashy, absurd, rude and violent tale that, in some respects, actually DOES live up to it’s ‘Based on a True Story’ tag line (I looked up the actual case, some of what we’re shown DID go down, “unfortunately”). MANY times, I found myself chuckling out loud at the myriad of stupid lines and ludicrous situations, and if you can get into this kind of flick…you’ll be amused too. I think ‘Pain and Gain’ MAY actually be my second favorite Michael Bay movie now…right behind Bad Boys (1995)…after bumping aside ‘The Island’ (2005).

*It does seem a little odd to essentially celebrate the low-life criminal pieces-of-shit that inspired this movie by turning their crimes and disfunctional personalities into the basis for a piece of pop culture entertainment, but if you look a little deeper, the portrayal of these characters is basically a big ‘fuck you’ to their criminal legacy, showing them as dangerous but dimwitted morons who couldn’t hack earning an honest living to achieve their over-inflated ideas of entitlement. And two of them were executed…so who cares.

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