If there’s one thing director Michael Bay knows, it’s how to excite people. For nearly twenty years, he has been devising methods to burst our collective eardrums and flash-fry our optical nerves with visual and aural verve, always striving to pack theaters with folks looking for their next fix of thrills and explosions and everything awesome. He’s also one of the most commercially successful directors in Hollywood, and while he has been known to occasionally back the wrong horse (does anybody remember The Island?) and his movies have never been truly good, his care spent on special effects and crowd-pleasing elements are a huge reason his legacy ought to remain intact.
But while he’s probably best-known right now for the computer-generated antics of his Transformers trilogy (with a fourth on the way), one might forget that he actually started off with more grounded action films like Bad Boys, which blended violence and comedy in such a unique way that it did much to create the modern action genre as we know it. Hence Pain & Gain, with his smallest budget in over a decade, which tells the insanely true story of bodybuilders and criminals Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), and Adrian Dorbal (Anthony Mackie). The Sun Gym Gang, as they became known, hatched and executed a plan to kidnap and rob Miami businessman Tony Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), eventually attempting to kill the man when the dirty business was concluded. But their fortune was not due to last, and their empire came crashing down not long after.
One other nice aspect of Pain
& Gain is how it – like many Bay productions – doesn’t take itself all
that seriously. Though it amusingly purports to tell a true story
(fact-checkers ought to have a field day with the script), Bay and company make
full use of the nuttiness that occurred at the time, and the results are almost
too crazy to be believed. And the insane part is that the scenes that you might
consider too out there to possibly be real, the ones that make you laugh out
loud due to their ridiculousness… ACTUALLY HAPPENED. Ironically, it’s the more normal parts of the story that were
altered in order to make the characters more sympathetic. But while Bay perhaps
failed in his final execution, one has to respect the wink and nod of being
reminded during a particularly gruesome and comedic moment that, yes, “This is
still based on a true story.”
|Just say No, kids...|
This isn’t a typical Michal Bay production, relying less on gnarly explosions and more on character development to push the story forward. Unfortunately, the director’s biggest mistake was making the violent sociopaths herein the heroes in his tale. I’m not saying that bad guys cannot be considered heroes under the right circumstances; Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths was almost two hours of loveable crazies, and Richard Linklater’s Bernie made you root for a guilty murderer to get off scot free (and this was Jack Black, no less!). Bay’s problem is that this is a character-driven issue, and he’s just not a director who cares about his characters. You wing up hating just about everybody, whether they are the “heroes” or the “police” or anybody in between. Wahlberg and Mackie’s characters are so idiotic that you can’t help but shake your head at their incompetence and self-deception, not to mention their unlikely successes. Ed Harris’ private eye Ed Du Bois is dry and dull, and you’ll DEFINITELY hate Israeli actress Bar Paly as an immigrant exotic dancer cannot be understood half the time. You won’t even like Shalhoub as Kershaw, whom one character refers to as a “difficult victim”. The only person in this whole mess you’ll actually connect with is that of Paul Doyle (actually a composite of several real-life people), and that’s equal parts due to Johnson’s excellent performance and being an excellently-written role. You actually feel for Doyle, a recovering drug addict with a religious streak, who ends up joining the group and committing vile acts not through bad urges, but through desperation and a severe lack of options.
But the entire movie cannot be rested entirely on Johnson’s (and sparingly Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect star Rebel Wilson’s) back, and it isn’t long until you’re clamoring for something – ANYTHING – to relieve the monotony. Bay’s strengths – explosions and pretty image – are thankfully intact, although limited in appearance. The director does a good job of capturing both the shiny and dingy sides of Miami, from the squeaky-clean tourist areas and luxury homes to the run-down neighborhoods and seedy warehouse districts. Of course, he became familiar with these areas from his work on Bad Boys and its sequel, and while things have probably changed in the time since, he still manages to use the area to the greatest cinematic effect. While many who praise Bay argue that it is his action sequences that set him apart, it’s not – his command of all things visual is his true strength, even if it’s not quite enough to make up for his other failings.
|Money is not usually this bright.|
But make no mistake; despite its occasional bits of amusement and a genuinely strong performance from Johnson, Bay’s return to more human fare is a painful exercise in just how much he has become reliant on giant robots to be successful. Pain & Gain is a mediocre, amateurish and thoroughly unnecessary attempt at forced relevance, both for the filmmakers and the subjects of their labors. Yes, it’s still better than many of the brain-dead macho violent movies released in 2013, but that line is more of a limbo bar than a high jump. Bay generally wants his movies to be awesome, but this one definitely doesn’t make it. Bay is not a character-driven director, and that’s simply the kind of filmmaker this title needed if it was going to be close to sufficiently entertaining.