Directed by Michael Bay
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson & Anthony Mackie
Michael Bay doesn’t give a fuck. A brash conservative in a business of champagne socialists, Bay is a director as entrepreneur. Art is irrelevant, quality is irrelevant and critics are irrelevant. His goal when he makes a movie is to crush box office. This is the absolute. It’s what makes him such a great and durable punching bag for frustrated journalists forced to sit through his movies. The complete lack of creative ambition is almost a point of pride. But Bay has no pretentions about what he is, a peddler of nutrition-free junk to the masses not in the mood to eat gourmet.And is this really worse than someone like a Zack Snyder, whose convictions of his own creative capacities have lead to the ruin of potentially great blockbusters? Transformers was always gonna blow chunks, but Watchmen and Man Of Steel? They could have been contenders.
Pain & Gain tells the story of Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) a jacked trainer at his local gym who lives his life according to the principles of the American Dream. Work hard and one day you’ll have money pouring out of your ears. Except Daniel has grown tired of waiting for that one day. He decides he needs to be pro-active, specifically recruiting fellow muscle men Anthony Mackie and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and kidnapping a rich client who attends his gym and, via brute force, make him sign over to them all his assets and finances to do with what they will. Hilarity ensues.
The film is essentially Bay’s mea culpa for his own career. I was reminded of Adam Sandler’s performance in Punch Drunk Love, in which after making millions getting hit in the nuts and making gurning faces at the camera, Sandler discovers a creative fire that perhaps can only be accessed by spending your career repressing every artistic instinct you have in service of going after the lowest common denominator. Sandler delivers what in my opinion is one of the greatest performances ever, but while Bay is much, much, much less successful in his endeavour into ‘giving a shit’, he does prove that if he had to choose, he would have been perfectly capable of making some good movies. It’s a fun, well handled crime story and for the most part restrains his overbearing visual tendencies, at least a little bit, to allow the performances to take centre stage.
The obvious one to single out is Johnson, who has made a couple of attempts in the past to break out from his action hero default setting to mixed results, but he nails this one. His naive, born again ex-con the comedic highlight of the film, as well as being its most tragic figure. He’s always traded on his charm and natural charisma in the movies, but it’s nice to see him explore this thespian lark a bit more and actually create a character. Wahlberg, who Bay has already signed up to play the lead in Transformers 4 – I’ll see you there folks – has spent his career proving he’s a better actor than people think, and he makes for a brilliant idiot sociopath lead here. The sheer conviction of his delivery of the line “ I’m Daniel Lugo, and I believe in fitness” is worth the price of admission. Kudos too to Mackie and Tony Shalhoub, playing their victim, who both do great supporting work.
There are still problems, in all of Bay’s films you see ‘hip’ comedic actors come in for a couple of scenes and ‘do their thing’. That’s still here, with Ken Jeong and in particular Rebel Wilson playing broad caricatures that don’t really fit the tone of the film. At times Wilson just seemed to slip into her Pitch Perfect sardonic autopilot, seemingly forgetting there was a character to play and emotions to convey. The film is also way too long, and sags pretty badly in the middle when it gives itelf over to Ed Harris’ bland private detective. But the performances of the three leads keep you engaged.
Ultimately though, Pain & Gain is a confident, well acted dark comedy as Bay satirizes a lot about how he has gone about his career. He won’t change, and more than probably we won’t see this stranger who took his name and seemed to give a shit about the quality of his films again. But Bay’s venture into seeing how the other half lives was worth it and ultimately successful. That’ll do Bay, that’ll do. Now fuck off and make Transformers 4.