Review : Pain and Gain

Michael Bay takes a break from directing giant robots punching each other and returns to films of a more grown up nature and presents us with this low budget (well, low budget for a Michael Bay film) true story about bodybuilders, kidnapping, extortion and the American Dream. It’s a labour of love for the director, and despite the lower budget it still feels very much like a Michael Bay film. That’s not a compliment.

Daniel Lugo (Mark Walberg) is a bodybuilder working at a local gym who has dedicated his whole life to self improvement, and soon he feels as if America, the land of opportunity, isn’t giving him the success and most importantly the money he feels he deserves. After attending a seminar on the power of positive thinking (“Don’t be a don’ter, do be a doer”) he decides to take what he wants, though not through hard work and perseverance, but through stealing it. Recruiting some similarly dim but driven friends, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie, they go about kidnapping wealthy businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub) to try and get him to sign his millions over to them.

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What follows is a tale of the rise and fall of these three men, as they stumble through situation after situation almost always doing the wrong thing and making matters worse for themselves. One of the big problems with the film has is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be; blackly comic crime caper, absurdist thriller, satirical drama or a knockabout action comedy. In the end it tries and mostly fails to be all four at once.

Because the story itself is so ridiculous the film tries to make you laugh at the events playing out, yet as these men are criminals and the acts they are committing are so despicable it’s hard to find them endearing, none more so than when they’re admiring the breast implants of a woman they’ve oh-so-hilariously accidentally killed while preparing to dismember her corpse. The intention is to present the central trio as a band of loveable idiots, but it doesn’t come across that way at all, presenting a trio so hateful that you’re actively wanting them to get caught by the end. And as the film reminds us at several points this is a true story, making the comic treatment of it seem even more crass and tasteless. Subject matter such as this needs a deft hand to steer it away from the pitfalls this film falls into, and Michael Bay is a far way from the Coen Brothers, and Pain and Gain is certainly no Fargo.

And yet again, the director who turned an adaptation of a kids cartoon about massive robots into a sexist misogynistic homophobic racist mess does it again here. It’s arguable that given that the point of the movie, the quest to attain the American Dream or at least Lugo’s misguided idea of what it is, that Bay is allowed free reign to sadly give in to his more childish impulses, which are played for laughs in the film, but when the director has such a track record with this type of attitude in his films it starts to feel like there’s something wrong with his sense of humour. You feel like you need to take a bath once the credits roll. It’s an unpleasant and uncomfortable experience.

There is, however, one bright shining light. As ever, Dwayne Johnson is brilliant as the born again Christian ex-con who goes through a transformation/meltdown/identity crisis throughout the film, and plays it wonderfully showing a great deal of range. It’s just a shame he’s not in a better film.

Overlong, dull, aimless and by all accounts pretty horrible. All pain, no gain.

1 star

Review by Jonathan Cardwell.

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