Mark Reviews Movies

Pain & Gain


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson, Bar Paly, Rob Corddry, Ken Jeong, Michael Rispoli

MPAA Rating: R (for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use)

Running Time: 2:09

Release Date: 4/26/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 25, 2013

Michael Bay has made a career of flashy exercises in testosterone-driven excess of, yes, the ambitious variety—even if that ambition is almost always undermined by vapidity and stupidity. With Pain & Gain, the director has found material that is only heightened by the traits that usually result in some form of disaster to one degree or another, for here is a film about people who are enamored with the flashiness of the criminal life, driven entirely by their belief that their success is guaranteed by the mere fact of their testosterone-fueled existence, and undone in their ambitious goals by their complete and utter stupidity.

The film is a fine marriage of content and maker, and it's the first time we can see evidence that perhaps Bay has a sense of humor about his role as a purveyor of trash. Before this review turns into a string of backhanded compliments, it must be stated outright that the film works as the broadest kind of satire and a tonally, aesthetically spot-on piece of storytelling. Pain & Gain is a sensationalistic dramatization of a true story, and that's the right way to handle the material, given that the bizarre real-life scenario is perfectly suited for the pages of a tabloid. This is sleazy, abrasive entertainment, and that's a compliment without backhand.

There is a perverse joy in watching a trio of narcissistic musclemen with barely half a brain between the three of them but who believe themselves to be criminal geniuses screw up at every possible turn. It's a fundamental comic setup—characters' perceptions of themselves being completely removed from reality—and while it really is a one-joke film, it's a good joke and one that's bolstered by being based on actual events from the mid-1990s (documented in a series of articles by Pete Collins).

Even the film can't quite believe that second part. At one point, one of our dim-bulb anti-heroes is assigned to burn the fingerprints from two pairs of severed hands (The task itself is unnecessary, given that the ultimate plan is to use lye to get rid of any and all physical evidence; even that effort, it turns out, is a miserable, disgusting failure). The guy's plan is to use a charcoal grill to do so, and upon the other two culprits' return to their hideout, they find their partner standing outside in plain sight, wearing an apron and waving to a nearby security guard. All the while, the grill cooking the hands is standing right next to him for anyone to see. At this point, the film freezes, and a title reminds us, "This is still a true story."

Keep in mind that this grotesquery comes well into the film's final and admittedly problematic act, but up until then—before these guys accidentally start a body count—their actions are comparatively harmless—at least in that no one is killed. They try, mind you (and quite brutally torture a man in the process), but in case the point isn't clear, these three are really terrible at everything they set their minds to accomplish.

The leader of the pack is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a bodybuilder trying to obtain his slice of the American Dream (Ridiculously, he hopes for a lawn big enough that it would necessitate a riding mower). His philosophy is a simple one: If you work at something, you will achieve. It hasn't worked out too well for him so far, having never progressed in his career beyond being a personal trainer at a Los Angeles gym, so he decides to try a shortcut. He enlists the aid of Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a former convict and cocaine addict, and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), a steroid-using client, to kidnap a wealthy sandwich shop owner named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and force him to turn over all his assets to them.

Things go wrong before they're able to kidnap him. Lugo comes up with a plan to raid Kershaw's home but doesn't take into account that he might have guests. They decide to nab him as he's heading to his car after shopping, only to have Doyle and Doorbal wandering around an identical car looking for their target as he walks right past them. It doesn't get any better once they've abducted him, either. A blindfolded Kershaw is quick to figure out who has taken him after noticing Lugo's distinctive cologne. Doyle, a born again Christian, tries too hard to play nice with and convert Kershaw, and the entire plan could come apart because Lugo has never heard of the concept of a notary.

They succeed on pure dumb luck and, in the movie's most horrifyingly funny sequence, fail to do away with the man who could put them all in jail. The story is so outlandish that even the police don't believe it, and it's only when a retired private detective (Ed Harris) becomes involved that the trio's exploits come under any scrutiny. He's convinced they'll act again, and yes, they even screw up the American Dream that they work so lazily and behave so dreadfully to obtain.

The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely has nothing but contempt for these men, but there's no highfalutin' moralizing here (By the time the film does get around to moralizing, it's of the obvious kind—simply relating the price of crime). Their weapon in Pain & Gain is unadulterated and well-placed mockery in the face of dangerous idiocy. Bay, with his bag of callisthenic camera tricks at the ready, doesn't glamorize these fools in any fashion; he's merely accentuating their absurd way of thinking.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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