A film review by Craig J. Koban May 7, 2013


2013, R, 130 mins.


Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo /  Rebel Wilson as Ramona Eldridge /  Dwayne Johnson as Paul Doyle /  Ken Jeong as Johnny Wu /  Ed Harris as Ed Du Bois /  Anthony Mackie as Adrian Doorbal /  Tony Shalhoub as Victor Kershaw /  Rob Corddry as John Mese

Directed by Michael Bay / Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

PAIN AND GAIN represents – at least as much as he would assure you – an attempt by director Michael Bay to work outside of his comfort window of massive destruction, wanton excess, extraterrestrial robots and screaming Shia Labeoufs.  Even though the film’s fact-based storyline and its theme of the madness of achieving the American Dream by any stupid means necessary are perversely engaging, PAIN AND GAIN emerges as more aggressive minded soullessness from the filmmaker.  Bay kind of fails at his attempts at strong social satire by wallowing in ‘roided out visual chaos and a vibe of mean-spirited energy.  This was supposed to be a “smaller” and more “internalized” film from the militaristic, schlock and awe director.  

Make no mistake about it: this is still a Michael Bay film through and through. 

I will concede this about PAIN AND GAIN: Its story – based on a real tale chronicled by a series of Miami New Times articles in 1999 that surrounded a bunch of local muscle men kidnapping, extorting, torturing, and murdering their way to the top – is unendingly fascinating, mostly because of how it celebrates both the limitless quest for fame and wealth while, at the same time, kind of embracing and condemning the complete haplessness and stupidity of its criminals.  The alluring tease in PAIN AND GAIN is that it wants to act as a piece of sobering commentary about how these men – chiseled to physical perfection – fail to live up to their aspirations of acclaim, which leads them to partake in hellishly inane and dangerous actions that throws their sense of morality completely out the window.  There is a strong undercurrent of potential to this tale, and the actors are thankless is their performances, but Bay betrays that by lazily offering up his old back of cinematic tricks.  

Most certainly, the story here is of the stranger-than-fiction variety…big time.  The Dade County, Florida centered film focuses on three bodybuilders in particular who desperately try to achieve “Doer” status over “don’t-er”, as specifically relayed in one of the many voiceover tracks by the main character, Daniel Lugo (a massively beefed up Mark Wahlberg).  He has two BFFs in the skateboarding, ex-con Jesus-nut Paul (a completely uninhibited Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian (Anthony Mackie), the latter whom has taken so many performance-enhancing drugs that his manhood has all but left him.  Fed up with being a penniless nobody, Daniel sets his crosshairs on a rich businessman, Victor Kershaw (played well with weasel-like sneer Tony Shalhoub), who frequents Daniel’s gym and constantly reminds him of how those in power tend to stomp on those that don’t. 



Daniel has had enough and then lures in his buddies to help him launch his “master plan" of kidnapping Kershaw in broad daylight and then extorting him to relinquish his entire net worth.  Parts of the film’s peculiar charm is how it showcases the utter narcissism of these men, who think that they can do no wrong even when they emerge as hopelessly outclassed amateurs in the kidnapping game (their first few attempts are abysmal failures).  After many trial and error attempts, the men do indeed kidnap Kershaw, and after a long period of trying to persuade him to sign over his assets, he finally does.  Daniel then decides that Kershaw has to go, but he and his cohorts are so wretchedly ill-fated and uncoordinated that even after they crash Kershaw’s car with him in it, set it and him on fire, and then run him over…he still is left alive, granted, without the boys realizing it.  Nonetheless, the newly affluent trio begins to live the high live, while Kershaw secretly plans his own revenge scheme. 

PAIN AND GAIN gets by on the considerable skills of its actors, who play up to the film’s outlandish barbarism with a child-like naiveté.  Wahlberg may be the best actor working today at playing sheer stupidity and obliviousness; his Daniel is like a protein-enhanced Dirk Diggler, only arguably dumber.  Anthony Mackie provides some merriment with Adrian as a so-so bodybuilder with an okay build that likes to think he’s the next big thing.  The real performance standout is from the Rock; he has never given himself over to such a maddening and self-destructive role like he does here.  Watching him nosedive from a reformed ex-con/fundamentalist Christian to a drug addicted, stripper loving hound dog is one of PAIN AND GAIN’s sublime pleasures. 

Alas, these fine performances and the intriguing material and themes are sort of derailed by Bay’s omnipresent lust for showy spectacle (his overall visual style is just as coked up and steroid induced as his main characters).  There is no doubt that some of his aesthetic tricks are nifty (such as one continuously rotating shot that goes in and out of a pin-sized hole in a window), but they all but suffocate the film’s thematic ambition.  The longer you sit through the already long film (at 130 mins, Bay once again displays his self-indulgence for letting a story go on past its peak), the more you begin to understand that Bay really has no intellectual interest or compulsion with the underling story.  If anything, his handling of everything here is a bit hypocritical.  He wants to show the ugly side of sensationalistic materialism run amok in an amoral American society, yet he never misses beat at sensationalizing...everything.  This is also not helped by his misogynistic attitudes towards his female characters on display here: he frequently shows women as either (a) overweight clowns or (b) as scantily clad bimbos that cater to the lewd fantasies of the male characters and men in the audience.  In the testosterone world of Bay, smart and intriguing female characters are rare breed.

Then again, there are hardly any likeable people that parade through PAIN AND GAIN.  Hell, even Kershaw – the victim that we should identify with – is a mean-spirited and egomaniacal jerk.  There is one person that we do latch on to, which is a retired P.I. (played by Ed Harris), who happily emerges out of his rather unhappy retirement to assist Kershaw in finding his assailants and returning back what was stolen.  Compellingly, Harris’ detective does not act out of purely altruistic means; he really does not – as do most other people – like Kershaw, but he feels accountable to right a dastardly criminal wrong.   Harris represents the only emotionally resonate and relatable character in the film.  Unfortunately, by the time he shows up very late in the film, it’s almost all for naught. 

Let me be clear:  I have truly hated most of Michael Bay’s past films, especially the TRANSFORMERS series, which represented the worst impulses of shiny, bombastic, empty-minded, and bleakly commercial Hollywood filmmaking.   I did not hate PAIN AND GAIN.  Parts of it are sinfully enjoyable (especially how it pinballs from one voice-over track to another and frequently reminds viewers – even at its most incredulous moments – that, yes, this is still a true story).  Like most of his other films, PAIN AND GAIN still celebrates Bay’s penchant for machismo-laced excess.  I can see how he might have wanted to showcase a different side to his directorial repertoire by harnessing this fact-based crime thriller, but the material here desperately cries out for a director like a Michael Mann or even a Quentin Tarantino.  What’s really odd about PAIN AND GAIN is that the macabre and frequently disgusting story sort of out-classes its director. 

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