Pain and Gain Review
Just desserts—creatine-loaded, steroid-fueled desserts
Pain and Gain is Michael Bay’s best film to date, no questions asked; so imagine my surprise (and disappointment) when I remembered that following production on Pain and Gain, Bay is leaving excellent filmmaking in favor of a fourth Transformers entry, but I digress. Bay’s newest film isn’t reliant on alien robots, explosions, car chases, Megan Fox’s figure and Shia LaBeouf’s emotional shouting — it’s completely character-driven, and the characters sure drive. Our three protagonists have each established their on-screen presence in 2013. Mark Wahlberg starred in Broken City, Dwayne Johnson starred in G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Anthony Mackie was a part of the Gangster Squad ensemble. Each of these three actors flex their acting muscles (pun intended) throughout the film, keeping the audience invested and engaged in the lives and actions of our moronic, religious, slightly-homophobic (what is it with a quarter of the roles Wahlberg takes?), handsome and assuredly ripped main characters.
Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo isn’t unlike Dirk Diggler from Boogie Nights. He isn’t very smart, but he’s nice and he means well (well, mostly), and he trusts the absolute dumbest people to trust. Admittedly, you’d have to be rather lacking in the intelligence department yourself to saddle up with these morons. Lugo is all about living the American dream. He believes if you work hard then the money will flow in nonstop — and he’s not wrong to a point. Lugo works so hard on his body, but not his income or his brain. He just wants to pump it, get paid and give a little back. Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo is not unlike Jack Black’s Bernie Tiede from Richard Linklater’s Bernie. Lugo hatches a harebrained scheme to kidnap a rich jerk named Victor Kershaw (a brilliantly villainous Tony Shalhoub) that he feels isn’t entitled to his wealth. Essentially, Lugo wants to play a game of karma with Kershaw, but doesn’t expect Miami’s finest to play with him. Of all the constant character narrations throughout, Lugo’s is the most entertaining. What really shines through in Wahlberg’s performance is his ability to play a moron who knows how to manipulate morons flawlessly.
Dwayne Johnson gives the best performance of the cast and is the obvious standout among his peers. Johnson’s Paul Doyle is an ex-con, born-again Christian, cokehead who has no inner-strength or individual thinking. Doyle bounces from one interest to another throughout the film, only listening to Wahlberg’s Lugo selectively. I remember when Johnson was cast in Richard Kelly’s follow-up to Donnie Darko, Southland Tales, and the film community was poised to raise Johnson to the acting elite. Alas, Southland Tales tanked and since then, Johnson’s been stuck with action roles or roles calling ironic attention to his other action roles. With Pain and Gain, Dwayne Johnson shows his full capability and range, and it stands out in a star-studded cast of brilliant performances. I can’t wait to see what roles open up for him following this film.
While spending January in Los Angeles, I met an aspiring actor named Logan who boasted about attending the same wrap party as Spike Lee and Anthony Mackie. I am so jealous. Mackie is a member of the young class of Hollywood actors and actresses currently poised for monumental careers. Pain and Gain is undoubtedly one of the last steps Mackie needs to take to put his name in the tier of (relatively) freshly-christened movie stars like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson. Mackie plays a loyal friend to Wahlberg, but the best aspect of his performance is his chemistry with on-screen wife Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids, Pitch Perfect).
The rest of the supporting cast is equally nothing short of spectacular. Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) plays the primary antagonist. This is the true duality of the film. We aren’t given necessarily respectable protagonists but we are given a true bastard of a villain. While Kershaw’s money is hard-earned, his constant boasting and general lack of humanity is what makes us root against him in favor of our three stooges. Rob Corddry (Warm Bodies, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay) plays a desperate gymnasium owner. Rebel Wilson plays a hilarious nurse who becomes a very disappointed spouse. Even Ed Harris shows up to give the film a measure of class. That isn’t to say the rest of the cast isn’t classy, but their characters sure aren’t.
What I loved most about this film was that it was specifically directed by Michael Bay. He’s been pumping out Transformers mush since the mid 2000s and he finally lived up to the potential and earned his place among the other great filmmakers who rose out of the 90s like Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, The Wachoskis, Sam Mendes, Mel Gibson, etc. Pain and Gain is Michael Bay showing his peers how they’ve influenced him as a filmmaker. Let’s face it: Bay has taken more shots in the media for his movies than anyone else despite his knack for conveying an action sequence without flaws. It’d be asinine to say that other directors hadn’t taken a note or two from the Michael Bay School of Directing Mindless, Awesome Action (for the sake of itself).
That isn’t to say that Bay’s newest film is just an amalgamation of different scenes from influential films — this is still an undeniable Michael Bay ride: bikinis, sun, fast cars, beaches. I couldn’t help but see the influences of Fincher’s The Social Network, The Coen’s Fargo and Tony Scott’s Domino. Our antagonist (Shalhoub) isn’t unlike the protagonist of The Social Network: a rich, entitled snob who we would love to see go down in flames (but just can’t seem to die, in the case of Pain and Gain). Our three protagonists are a bunch of kidnapping morons like the kidnappers in Fargo (Peter Stormare even shows up for a brief cameo in Pain and Gain). Finally, Bay’s use of extreme color palettes and boisterous music to tell a true story is unmistakably like Domino. One last comparison would be to that of 2009’s Zombieland due to constant words appearing on screen.
If Pain and Gain is the potential Michael Bay’s been hiding away behind big budgets and incredibly bland scripts, then I’d have to wonder why he continued making sequels to Transformers. Is the almighty dollar that influential? The film is completely reliant on performances that pays off in the end — a gamble not many directors would take involving a film about three muscleheads. I just hope Bay’s next collaboration with Wahlberg (Transformers 4) takes a step in the Pain and Gain direction and not the direction he’s taken with the other sequels.