Movie Review: Pain & Gain (2013)

Body

Mischief.  Mayhem.  Steroids.

A Film Review of Pain & Gain

By: Lawrence Napoli

 

[Readers, please humor me by reading the following paragraph]

You’ve just finished a 3 hour work out and you’re sore all over.  You’ve put in the work, but now you want to max out on a final bench press before you call it a night.  You start off real slow, just to make sure what’s left of your muscles can take it and then you speed it up.  Just as you start to pick up the pace, the gym manager shouts out 5 minutes to closing; you keep going.  That babe you were trying to impress all night finally cuts you a look and a smile and your adrenaline spikes; you go faster.  You notice some fed up mother dragging her screaming children out of day care and then she curses out loud, calling her kids rotten bastards.  It all pisses you off and you go even faster.  The cleaning crew starts making their way to the main area of the gym, but while one talks the other doesn’t notice the free weights left out on the floor; he trips and falls flat on his face which gets you to snicker.  You’re feeling a good burn now, but the manager shouts your name to get the hell out and he stomps over to your direction only to collide with a six foot blonde, taking both to the ground.  Turns out she’s a transvestite (because mesh shorts + no underwear was too revealing as she went down) and she proceeds to spill a giant bag of dildos she was smuggling out of the gym (where did she get them in the first place?).  Everything just got weird, but you’ve never felt stronger or lifted more in your life so you still keep going.  A homeless man then stumbles through the front doors, drops ‘trow and defecates right there on the spot.  The lactic acid rushes over you, you’re way past pure exhaustion and you feel the dry heaves of vomit curdling up only to realize your arms have already given out.  The weights crash down on your chest and roll to your throat, effectively choking you out.  The paramedics revive you and you feel lucky to be alive, but you don’t feel particularly good right now.

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We're here to pump you up!

I just spoon fed the entire experience of watching Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, a true crime story of muscle heads turning to kidnapping, torture and murder in Miami in pursuit of the American dream.  Of course, there are no spoilers here, but imagining someone’s final set of the day with all the distractions I mentioned combined with an ever increasing pace is exactly what the viewer will see, hear and feel when they buy a ticket to ride this crazy train.  Every aspect of the filmmaking process: the camera movement, the soundtrack, the dialogue, the action and the lighting mimics the relentless pace of “the final set” in such an undeniable way that I have to admit that this film is Michael Bay’s most artistic film.  Please understand, however, that Bay has always been the stereotypical “Hollywood Guy” that could only tell a story if there were explosions here, explosions there; explosions everywhere!  I am certain this film takes several liberties with some of the facts regarding the exploits of Daniel Lugo, but in moments where viewers couldn’t possibly believe what they were seeing was true, the film reminds the audience that this all still happened.  Bay shelves his love for pyro with a slight over-abuse of the slow motion visual effect, but there is no mistaking the “bigness” of this film as anything other than a Michael Bay production even without the presence of giant robots or Sean Connery.

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There's gotta be at least 1 explosion.

The actual plot of Pain & Gain is relatively straight forward and as basic as crime stories get, but screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely apparently binged on Neveldine and Taylor’s Crank franchise prior to writing this script.  As a result, manic characters, perpetuating stereotypes, absurd plot twists, and vulgar tone mixed with pure adrenaline turns the crimes committed by Lugo and co. into one hell of an entertaining adventure.  Comedy is the key element that pushes the plot forward through a combination of ridiculous dialogue and absurd slapstick.  But here’s the catch.  These crimes still happened in reality and they ruined/ended the lives of many real people.  I cannot help but think that making such a spectacle of Lugo’s exploits in this particular way diminishes the real life tragedy.  The counter to this sensation is the fact that Lugo and his crew are depicted as little more than stereotypically dumb body builders who are incredibly high on themselves, extremely gullible and view the rest of the world as somehow owing them more simply for being as awesome as they are. 

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This scene was probably more serious in real life than in this film.

Satire is certainly at work here, but as I mentioned earlier, this film never lets up on the single-minded/self-minded nature of the story which disallows the audience to reflect on the utter horror of the crimes thanks to the fact that these meatheads are constantly making themselves look like hilarious idiots.  If Pain & Gain is trying to expose the folly and corruptibility of ego-maniacal behavior, this message gets lost amidst the spectacle.  The main reason for this is that even when the main characters/antagonists fail, they are never depicted as pathetically low as any of their victims.  The audience had more than 4/5 of this film to understand the fact that these men were denser than lead and the fact that the story does not definitively shift to a serious tone pulls back on punches at the end of the film that should be going for a climactic knock out.  For a film to be as true of a story as this was, no other was in more need of reality checks.

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I'm as grounded as any character gets in this film.

Pain & Gain is a character driven story and without good performances all around, no film can claim a true cast of “colorful characters.”  The one actor the audience would never expect in a film such as this is Ed Harris who plays P.I. Ed DuBois and his presence exists to lend some of that grounded seriousness I just complained that was lacking throughout.  As great of an actor as Harris is, his character is simply not important enough in terms of screen time to allow his dialogue and demeanor to leave a lasting appeal.  Tony Shalhoub does a solid job as target #1 Victor Kershaw, but he isn’t asked to lift anything heavier than the token scumbag that doesn’t deserve an ounce of sympathy from anyone.  Ken Jeong and Rebel Wilson use their specific talents of awkward/absurd comedy to ratchet up the laughs, but neither are given true moments to perform outside of those boundaries. 

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Are you a "do"er?

The one performance I was actually disappointed in was that of Anthony Mackie as Adrian Doorbal.  I’ve made note of his promising performances in films like Real Steel and The Adjustment Bureau, but he easily stands in the shadow of his other two co stars.  A large part of the problem is the fact that he’s playing a body builder and although he’s significantly larger than the skinny body type I’ve always seen him as, he simply doesn’t have the tone and definition of any other muscle head he stands next to (including extras).  This takes a large chunk of credibility away from his character and it could have been compensated with a truly marquee performance, but comedy is not Mackie’s strength; it’s drama.

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I look better in Falcon's armor anyway.

Marky Mark hit the gym a bit more than Mackie prior to filming as his arms certainly showed an upgrade, but the trailers to Pain & Gain made it seem as if Wahlberg was juicing for years.  Much of the film is narrated from Daniel Lugo’s perspective as he is technically the main character of this sordid tale of excess fitness.  What can I say?  Wahlberg knows how to portray flawed confidence, gullible ignorance and absolute absurdity with a straight face.  This is vital to Lugo as a character because communicating his disconnect from any traditional morality/ethics in favor of a fitness/self-help inspired credo of “simply doing = godly” explains how this real person was more cartoon character than carbon based life form.  Unlike the role he played in The Fighter, Wahlberg is not required to do anything more than play up the meathead in this film and I can only give so much credit to what amounts to a type cast.   Wahlberg must have some kind of unspoken/unwritten/unknown connection with Josh Brolin because he has the same tendency of being overshadowed by some (if not all) of his supporting cast.  And speaking of whom . . .

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Muscles are my reality. Fitness is my life.

The Rock/Dwayne Johnson/The Brahma Bull is the true star of Pain & Gain.  First, being the only true athlete of the cast, he proved that being built like a tank could indeed be improved upon because he looks to have added 20 pounds of pure muscle on top of his already intimidating frame.  The man is in impeccable physical condition, but I don’t want to know how many chemicals are coursing through his veins.  That aside, Johnson as Paul Doyle is the only character that seems to show any sign of struggling with the jaded nature of the crew’s affairs and this works to his advantage as an actor.  He isn’t a talented enough of an actor to actually display a complete shift in demeanor from clueless athlete to tortured soul, but he can keep a straight face while reciting ludicrous lines of dialogue thanks to his experience in the WWF/E.  The result is a specific hilarity that actually generates sympathy for the simpleton he plays and let’s just say that when his character rediscovers cocaine, the audience will experience a comedy level beyond the peak of The Rock’s most famous rants of the mid 1990s.

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My boys can smell it.  Can you?

Pain & Gain was a tricky film for me to digest due to the intense delivery of so much character development & interactivity, action, comedy and absurdity in such a short amount of time.  On a pace rating of 1-10, this film starts at a 9 and exceeds 15 with virtually no time outs.  This film is a constant chain lightning of laughs and grotesquery, so the viewer better beware.  I like that this film seemed to paint the culture of extreme fitness gone way too far as the true culprit, but the script doesn’t do much to address issues like steroid abuse other than in the first 10 minutes of the film.  It appears as though sociopathic tendencies can develop from obsessive devotion to any of life’s sub-cultures and it’s interesting to observe how most involve the “improvement of self” in some way, shape or form.  Had this film shown an ability to shift gears to a more serious drama at the right time, Michael Bay would have had a much better film on his hands than an audaciously entertaining romp through the chemically enhanced purple hills of muscle beach.  Without reading more meaning into it, Pain & Gain is the first comedy of the summer that’s worth your time thanks to decent performances all around, but an inspired effort by The Rock.  That is, of course, if you know what he’s cooking.

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