Pain & Gain: No.
After three (going on four) Transformers movies for “kids,” we’re back to being buffeted and beaten down by director Michael Bay’s R-rated adolescent id (last seen popping up its leering, lurid, head in 2003’s repugnant Bad Boys II).
Bay’s Pain & Gain tells (as we’re repeatedly reminded by “ironic” title cards) the true story of three dim-witted losers who are as jacked up on American-Dream get-rich delusions as they are on steroids. (That American Dream, we’re reminded, is comprised primarily of boobs, cars, guns, and ‘sposions.)
Sun Gym trainer Daniel (Mark Wahlberg) convinces big-hearted, Jesus-loving ex-con Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and eager lackey Adrian (The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie) to go along with a plan to kidnap a rich gym client (Tony Shalhoub) and clean up on the ransom. Needless to say, ineptitude and increasingly gruesome mayhem ensue. Hilarity does not.
Basing their script (mostly) on the sort of outrageous true-crime tale that always seem to happen in Florida (in this case, as chronicled in 1999 for the Miami New Times by reporter Pete Collins), screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger) set Pain & Gain in mid-‘90s Miami for a double-dose of bad taste and outrageous behavior. But more than historical (semi-) accuracy, the era informs the film’s tone and intent.
Cinematically, the second half of the ‘90s was awash in post-Tarantino knock-offs, when it felt like every new crime film that followed Reservoir Dogs (1992), True Romance (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Natural Born Killers (1994) was mainlining the easy takeaways from QT’s style: the cut-and-paste chronologies; the daring camera work; the fetishizing of lurid, inventive violence; the dead-end characters who can’t stop talking. Even more than Miami, Pain & Gain feels like its set smack in the middle of that late-‘90s Tarantino-ville, or rather a weak simulacrum suburb of Tarantino-ville that’s been scrubbed clean of all grit, cleverness, and humanity.
Dumb movie characters are not necessarily a bad thing, as the Coen Brothers and Tarantino repeatedly remind us. But just “dumb” isn’t enough of an all-encompassing character trait for a protagonist expected to carry a film and our attention.
By the time Daniel, Paul, and Adrian make it to Bay’s screen, they’re so shallowly drawn, so slapped together out of buffoonish traits, that they never feel like they’re driving the “based-on-a-true” story. Instead they seem to be towed along behind it, more like distinguishing details in a police report than real humans.
Say what you will about Tarantino’s films and their menageries of fuck ups, but we care about his main characters because he does. We don’t care enough about any one of these Pain & Gain idiots to root for or against them, let alone question which of those we should be doing. We just feel trapped with these loons, goons, and cartoons.
The entire film feels over-stuffed with leftover secondary characters, many of them played by decent enough character or comic actors like Tony Shaloub, Ed Harris, Rob Corrdry, and Rebel Wilson. Likewise, Wahlberg, Johnson, and Mackie give it their best with their thinly pumped-up roles.
Each actor has proven in the past to be both charismatic and talented in the hands of the right director, but no one is ever going to confused Michael Bay for an actors’ director. He can’t trust himself, his stars, or his film with enough breathing space to find any sort of chemistry or groove with one another, so the three actors and their characters slam and careen off each other like boulders in a washing machine.
Bay’s dedication to serving up mayhem serves him well in action films (I’m the first to applaud and enjoy the kinetic visual strengths of the Transformer movies and Armageddon), but faced with narrative that is, at least for its first half, supposed to be character-driven, the director seems lost, desperate to gin up any sort of cinematic hustle and jive that might distract his teenage-ADD mind. Almost genetically incapable of subtlety, even Bay’s attempts to do “small and seedy” get slo-mo’ed and super-saturated into his trademark brand of jacked-up, strippers-and-coke “epic.” And the more “wackily convoluted” plot that gets piled into the film’s second half, the duller Pain & Gain becomes.
The intent here was to make us laugh darkly at the wild and lurid consequences of the Sun Gym Gang’s boneheaded greed, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that plan or with Markus and McFeely’s basic script. But despite its weirder-than-life particulars, such a tale still requires cinematic finesse, and Michael Bay don’t do cinematic finesse.
Pain & Gain is all surface, all lurid signal and no source, and its obsession with low-life Miami sleaze and human delusion, depravity, and stupidity feels like hollow voyeurism soaked in desensitized sadness. Without any emotional context for the buffoonery and mayhem, this shallow mash up of America’s Most Wanted and its Funniest Videos of Groin Injuries feels cheap and exploitive, an anti-life ‘roided-out carny midway so jacked up and pointless, it doesn’t even amuse or entertain as kitsch or irony.