Movie Review: Pain & Gain

There’s a moment in Con Air when Nicolas Cage’s character sees that the plane is towing a car through the air and drawls “On any other day, that might seem strange” and I found myself thinking about that line after this movie. It’s one of those stranger than fiction true crime stories which is played for black, surreal humour, the problem is, because the movie is so relentlessly unhinged from the beginning the more surreal flourishes don’t have the shock they should have.

pain gain pos

We’re deep in Michael Bay territory here with lots of hyperactive cutting, leery camerawork and characters strutting and posturing. All this means it very quickly stops resembling real life and you can’t help but feel that a more delicate touch behind the camera would have been more suited to the plot, although there are a few flourishes I did like.

The movie tells of the mid 90s criminal gang of bodybuilders operating in Miami who engaged in a short run of kidnapping and theft, culminating in a double murder. The head of the gang is personal trainer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), who grows tired of being a working stiff and seeing other people living large. He wants his share of the American dream.

His chance appears in the form of a new client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) an obnoxious rich dude who treats Lugo badly and flaunts his wealth. Lugo’s plan is simple, to kidnap Kershaw and extort his wealth and possessions. Lugo quickly recruits his best friend Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), a fellow worker at the gym. Adrian needs cash because his obsession with bulking up has led him to use steroids and he needs an injection to cure his impotence, and also to live more comfortably.

The duo need a third man and find it in the shape of hulking ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), who is reluctant to join up with them having found religion in the joint. Paul eventually gives in and joins Lugo’s scheme after reassurance that nobody will get hurt. Of course, it doesn’t pan out this way.

Lugo (Wahlberg) and his hostage Kershaw (Shalhoub)

Lugo (Wahlberg) and his hostage Kershaw (Shalhoub)

They fleece Kershaw, and try to bump him off, but he survives. The police don’t believe his far-fetched tale but retired cop turned PI Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) does and decides to dig deeper, warning his former colleagues that the gang will get hungry again and people will get hurt.

How will the three muscle bound criminals deal with their new wealth? How long will their haul last? And can they really get lucky twice?

Okay, as you’ve probably already guessed the film wasn’t a massive hit with me, but apparently I liked it more than most critics. What I dug about the movie was that it employs several narrators over the course of the film, allowing us to see how differently the characters read things. The best use of this is when Lugo is laying out a plan and the dimwitted Paul regards him as a genius while Adrian has clocked that his friend is making it up as he goes.

It also means that we get an insight into Kershaw’s mind, and discover that he’s actually worked hard to get where he is and isn’t the entitled douche you initially thought. Admittedly he does remain something of an annoying, unpleasant character and you can’t help but feel that this is Bay’s way of trying to get us to still sympathize with the protagonists.

Part of the reason I really wanted to see this flick is because I’m a massive fan of both Wahlberg and Johnson, and was keen to see how they worked together, and I’ve always found both to be likable screen presences. Wahlberg starts the film as the down on his luck personal trainer and does a good job of getting the audience to understand where he’s coming from- he doesn’t want more than anybody else, just more than he has now.

There’s a certain awkwardness to the character which is endearing- he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, and I felt for him when he got shot down by a sexy client and treated like dirty by Kershaw. The problem is, that as they go into action I started to lose a lot of sympathy for the character. And, as the main character, that’s a bad thing.

Wahlberg is good in the role, and should be applauded for being brave enough to play a character who becomes increasingly unlikable. At the first the slightly dim witted jock type is strangely endearing in the bungling way he puts together his plan and the way things go wrong. And his mix of gym wisdom, self help platitudes and American dream philosophy makes him a but it brings another side of Lugo to the surface- manipulative, ruthless and slightly cruel. He insults his friends and begins to show the same sense of entitlement that irked him in Kershaw.

The gang are seriously flawed individuals, but I guess that’s the type of person who’d be lured into kidnapping and to a lesser extent, bodybuilding in general. Anthony Mackie’s Adrian exemplifies this the most- his cocky flexing in the mirror and use of steroids exposing the feeling of inadequacy that cripples the character. There’s a feeling that even with the money and his new wife, played by Rebel Wilson (more on her later), he will never truly be pleased with his life, regardless of how buff he gets, because his problems are rooted within.

The gang of flawed criminals (Johnson, Wahlberg and Mackie)

The gang of flawed criminals (Johnson, Wahlberg and Mackie)

Johnson, the largest of the trio actually gives the best performance of the three, with his portrayal of the born again Christian who slides back into crime being oddly moving. He’s a tragi-comic figure, a hulking man mountain with a knack for violence who wants to move away from this.

Johnson gets a lot of the film’s laughs as the thickest of the trio, gullible and foolish, he gets played by his allies and enemies alike. It’s a new kinda role for the artist formerly known as the Rock, with him not being his usual cool, powerful on screen presence. He also manages to capture the sadder aspect of the character, with the cash leading Paul into a downward spiral of drugs and poor decisions. It’s played for laughs, as everything seems to be, but it struck me as rather tragic.

I’m not a religious man, but Paul’s fall from grace and guilt over his actions could/should have been handled with more delicacy and depth, but it’s one of several things lost in the frantic pace of Bay’s vision. I was distinctly uncomfortable with how the character was treated throughout and the way his faith was ridiculed. Still, solid work from Johnson and nice to see him stretching himself a bit, even if he should find better projects in future.

Bay’s sense of humour in several of his films has been questionable, with parts of Bad Boys II being in poor taste, and worryingly this is the second film where a dead woman’s enhanced breast is felt up, which is kinda messed up to include in one movie, let alone two. Granted, the implants actually turn out to be integral to the plot later on, but still, it’s dodgy, dude.

And Bay’s pervy camerawork is again on display, taking a long time lingering over strippers and the female clientele of the gym, and I’m a Russ Meyer fan, so if I’m calling it as pervy you know it’s pervy. It’s this kind of thing and the casual approach to some of the violence that makes it a rather unpleasant film in many respects, and not the knock about comedy I was hoping for.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few laughs along the way and a couple of shocking moments which raised a chuckle, and there are some great lines sprinkled throughout, but it’s a little too seedy for it’s own good, and the characters just aren’t likable enough.

The supporting cast do their best- Shalhoub is smarmy as their victim and Ed Harris can pretty much sleepwalk this kind of terse crusader of justice. The biggest disappointment was Rebel Wilson, who aside from a couple of small gags is horribly underused.

Wilson- Underused

Wilson- Underused

The film made me think a lot of other films, and generally the comparison’s weren’t good- it reminded me of the worst parts of Bad Boys II and Bay’s decision to use different types of footage throughout (shaky POV, some grainy scenes) made me feel like I watching a particularly weak Tony Scott movie.

Verdict: An interesting story and a few genuine laughs, coupled with decent performances from Johnson and Wahlberg aren’t enough to rescue a film which just feels mishandled and mean-spirited. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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