Sunday, October 27, 2013

Pain and Gain

Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shaloub, Ed Harris, Rob Corddrey, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Bar Paly, Michael Rispoli
Running Time: 129 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The commercials, trailers and ads for Pain and Gain would lead you to believe it's a certain type of movie aimed at a very specific audience. So naturally, it's easy to be unsure as to whether you'll be on board when Michael Bay's name appears over the opening credits as director. But you know what? It's actually pretty good. While declaring it his most interesting film runs the risk of damning with faint praise, no one has ever disputed the guy has talent and knows what he's doing. The problem has always been harnessing it. This is the closest a project has come to doing that thus far and it's easy to see why. It's over-the-top, outrageously dumb and in-your-face, while still carrying some of what you'd expect from a Bay movie. Except this one has characters worth watching in a story that's just crazy enough to be true because it actually is. It's certainly no masterpiece and, at almost two and half hours, probably could have been trimmed, but it does earn its running time if just the sheer scope and audacity of it all. Consider this his testosterone-fueled epic, albeit on a smaller budgeted, more intimate scale than we're used to getting from him. Featuring two performers who couldn't have possibly been a better fit for their roles, it's both darkly comical and pathetically tragic in all the right ways, resulting in a surprisingly fun time.

Based on 1999 series of true crime articles published in the Miami New Times, the film tells the story of dim-witted musclehead Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) who upon being hired by Sun Gym, nearly triples their membership almost overnight. But despite already rolling in the cash, he wants more. Inspired by motivational speaker Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong) to become a "doer" and take what he wants in life, Danny yearns to live the American dream and amass the vast wealth achieved by Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), an arrogant, sleazy client he's been training. With the help of friend and workout partner Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and cocaine-addicted convict Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), Danny sets in motion a  clumsy plan to kidnap and extort Kershaw for all he's worth. Needless to say, this doesn't exactly work out, or rather it does, just not at all in the way you'd expect. They've left a giant mess, and with a retired private eye (Ed Harris) hot on their trail, these bumbling criminals have somewhat unintentionally added torture and murder to their rap sheets.

Despite having little idea how much of the "real-life" story was retained in the screenplay and what was embellished to make a more exciting impression on screen, it's tough to criticize the direction Bay took with the material. It's too ridiculous and unbelievable to be played straight as a crime drama, yet contains enough darker elements that it wouldn't be fair to classify it entirely as an action-comedy either. More often than not it fits into the latter category, but what's most surprising is how well, and for how long, Bay straddles that line without slipping up. It's the kind of story that's the perfect fit for a big screen treatment because it contains characters who are blissfully unaware of just how delusional they are. To say that Danny has a warped perception of the "American Dream" would be an understatement, but Wahlberg makes his cluelessness likable to the point that even when he's doing the most heinous things, we're still kind of rooting for him and his pals to get away with it. Part of it could be that their target is such a jerk, but it does almost seem almost unfair that a character so stupid could even be held responsible for his own actions. At points it seems as if he doesn't even know what actions are, or at least that they carry consequences.

Unsurprisingly, the real standout is Johnson, who's given a break from headlining pure action franchises to prove again just how strong he can be when asked to turn in meaningful supporting work with a comic bent. Of course, it just so happens to be a performance that's arguably still in a pure action movie of a different sort, but it's easily his most interesting role since, yes, Southland Tales. As a born-again bible thumper seeking to avoid confrontation at any cost, Paul is the worst choice of partner imaginable to successfully help execute a kidnapping and extortion plot, providing the film with its funniest moments. The most hilarious of which comes when all three together can't successfully commit a necessary murder no matter how hard they try, resulting in the fallout that follows them for the rest of the picture. Of the three leads, Mackie has the least to do and his sub-plot involving his impotence from steroid use and a relationship with a sex-crazed nurse (Rebel Wilson) is probably (along with a third-act development better suited to a Saw film) the weakest story thread, but even that plays better than it has a right to. Shaloub is perfectly detestable as the villain while Ed Harris seems to be playing a spoof of serious Ed Harris roles as the retired investigator. He clearly knows what movie he's in and has fun with it.

While the story takes place in 1995 and strangely feels every bit like it really does, it's easy to envision it happening today. Not so much in terms of the events that go down, but the behaviors and attitudes of the three main characters, which could easily be summised by any reality show on TV right now. Watching this it's impossible no to wonder if Bay understands this or he just thought that what these guys did was really cool. Going against popular opinion, I'd wager on the former (okay, maybe a little of the latter) because it's all just too cleverly made to assume anything else. Technically, it's his best effort just in terms of the visuals and music working together to tell an actual story.

Besides the movie just flat-out looking great and featuring some really memorable shots, Steve Jablonsky's moody, electronic tinged score is one of the year's best, not garnering nearly enough attention for how well it fits the material and setting. And how can you knock any movie with a montage proudly set to Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory?" What Pain and Gain is, and ultimately what gives it away as a Michael Bay movie, is that it's a guy's movie through and through. Explosions, violence, women, money, working out, drugs. What sets it apart is that he actually seems to be aware of it this time and has some fun with an actual story he can turn and twist to fit his every whim. When we find out what happened to the characters' real-life counterparts at the end, there isn't much doubt what we watched, true or not, was the best possible representation of how exciting it could have been.   

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