Pain & Gain review

Ever wondered what a particularly sordid Carl Haaisen novel would be like if the rights were bought up by Vivid Video? Well wonder no longer, because Bay has the answer.

Based on a true-life crime story, Pain & Gain concerns the "Sun Gym Gang" who achieved notoriety for a Florida crime spree in the mid-nineties. Ex-con and body builder Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) is hired to inject some steroids into a fading gym by its owner. This he achieves through a variety of schemes, including free membership for strippers. However after being inspired by a get-rich-quick inspirational guru (The Hangover’s Jeong in a more-of-the-same cameo) Lugo finds he is dissatisfied with his current lot. Frustrated spotting rich clients he begins to zero in on Victor Kershaw (Shalhoub), a particularly obnoxious example. Kershaw is a Columbian immigrant and self-made millionaire fond of waving his wad under everyone’s noses.

Lugo hatches a kidnapping and extortion plan, but the beefy bonehead needs help to pull it off. His first recruit is chemically impotent colleague Adrian Doorbal (Mackie). The pair look for more muscle and find it (and then some) in the form of Paul Doyle ("The Rock" Johnson). Also an ex-con, Doyle is also an ex-addict and Jesus freak. Initially wary, as is trying to both adhere to the 12 steps and renounce violence, Doyle falls in with the gang after the advances of a gay priest lead him to rediscover his inner thug.

This is all in the first 40 minutes or so of Bay’s experiment in "low budget" filmmaking. And for this time it’s a blast. The script is good, the cast appealing, and the material suits Bay’s crass, hyper-kinetic filmmaking style (this is a man who coined his own directing method, "fucking the frame"). You can probably sense there is a ‘but’ coming, yes? And indeed there is, a "but" bigger than the wobbly latex sex aids that The Rock marvels at later in the film. Each story twist makes the film more and more sordid. As the characters slide into greater excesses of drug abuse, greed and stupidity it becomes increasingly ugly and offensive.

Bay’s smartest move is casting Shalhoub. The actor creates a character who is "innocent", but also so personally obnoxious that that the natural inclination is to side with the kidnappers (who are, after all, played by good-looking film stars – the real guys were less attractive). Once the kidnapping scheme kicks off the film turns increasingly violent both physically – as Kershaw is tortured – and in running gags caused by the gang’s racism and anti-Semitism. Kershaw is Columbian, but also Jewish and Doyle takes it upon himself to introduce him to Jesus Christ as his personal saviour while Lugo adopts an exaggerated Columbian accent to hide his identity from the blindfolded victim. The problem is that the balance is completely off, the film’s point-of-view is relentlessly that of the gang and it begins to feel like a celebration and not a criticism of their less-than-savoury worldview.

Filmmakers have to be careful when presenting central characters who are racist, homophobic, misogynistic arseholes. Without due diligence, such a film can be taken as an endorsement of such attitudes. Here, each racist gag feels like it has been machine tooled by several screenwriters. In real life, racist idiots rarely have good dialogue. The movie’s primary register is comic, as shown by the casting of actors Corddry, Wilson and Jeong in secondary roles. Again, for 40 minutes I will freely admit to laughing a lot, but as it turns to torture porn (and believe me when I say I use that term in full awareness of its implications), it continues to play for laughs. The aforementioned scene in which The Rock beats the crap out of a frail, elderly gay man for making an advance on him is presented for the amusement of the audience. Bay is still the same director who made the vile Bad Boys II (full disclosure – a film I walked out of) and he still thinks homophobia is hilarious.

It is possible for a film to dance with such attitudes and still be clear in its satirical intent – for example, the savagely funny but ultimately sickening Belgian film Man Bites Dog or Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down in which Michael Douglas went memorably postal in a burger joint (note to Bay, when Schumacher is being brought up as an exemplar of taste you are in trouble).

Late into the film a voice of reason character is introduced in the shape a private detective (Harris, too good for this) but by this point numbness has set in due to the relentless barrage of tasteless comedy, violence and fast edited, high contrast visuals. Pain & Gain finally plunges into an abyss from which it cannot escape when if depicts the crimes for which the gang really attained their notoriety (the kidnapping is merely the entrée to a an all-you-can-eat feast of abjection). Much of the veracity of the film to real events is questionable but the crimes are not. What happened to the gang’s victims was truly horrible and Bay’s portrayal these events defiles their characters and reputations. Then again what can one expect from the director of Pearl Harbour.

There is a potential here for a satirical swipe at the American dream – how it can be shot full of performance-enhancing chemicals, pumped up and turned into wanton moronic excess. Unfortunately, Michael Bay is the very epitome of wanton moronic excess – he probably spreads it on his toast every morning. The director slams the pedal all the way down from the opening scene, and never lets up – there is zero subtlety on display. Films as tub-thumpingly bombastic as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers or Brian De Palma’s Scarface seem like the work of Terrence Davies by comparison. Bay has absolutely no skill for satire, especially when what is being satirised seems to be exactly the kind of dumb worldview expressed in his largely wretched filmography. Let’s not forget this is a man who has risen to his greatest success by bending a woman over a motorbike in a film ostensibly aimed at children.

At one point, Lugo tells his gang not to worry as he knows what he is doing because "I watched a lot of movies". If the film wasn’t taking place in 1995, I’d say the movies he’s seen were all by  Bay. Like a three week old protein shake left out in the sun, Pain & Gain leaves a rancid taste in the mouth. All pain, no gain.

Pain & Gain at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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