Sunday, May 12, 2013

Pain & Gain (2013)

So Michael Bay made a movie for $26 million, huh? That is brilliant. Absolute genius, and it needs to happen more often to more directors. Give James Cameron all his usual equipment, the best stuntmen Hollywood can find and Arnold Schwarzenegger on the condition that he can't use CGI at any point. Give him a year time limit, too, since he won't have to wait for the stuntmen to catch up with his vision. Give Spielberg 100 grand, an RV, Tom Hanks and an HD camera and send him on his way. Let's see what he does. Make Uwe Boll film a movie on a cell phone. Hell, it'd probably be a step up from his usual stuff.

It's no secret that I'm not a Michael Bay fan. I guess when I was a kid I was, but that's only because Bay's target audience is the lowest common denominator and stupid children. I think that even at that time I knew what I was watching wasn't very good, but man, when you're 15 years old "Armageddon" just speaks to you. I saw that mess in theaters twice, son. That blew my young mind. And of course "The Rock," which is arguably Bay's best film (although the only reason it's good is the cast) was a monument to my adolescence. Then he did "Transformers" and all affection for Bay was lost on me, with little chance of ever returning.

I think this was the moment when my childhood officially died.

I won't say that "Pain & Gain" has brought me back into the Michael Bay fold, so to speak, but you know something? This is good. This is a really, really, really good movie. And it's not only a testament to the actors involved, almost all of whom give award-worthy performances, not only a testament to the writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, for making a true, horrible story about true, horrible people actually hilarious, but it's also a testament to Michael Bay himself, because with "Pain & Gain" he has outed himself as a very good director when he wants to be. And yes, it pains me to say it, but it's true.

"Pain & Gain" is the "so insane it can only be true" story about a trio of lunkheaded body builders who wanted more out of life. After all, they deserve to live the American Dream. So they kidnapped a rich guy and stole all his stuff. This all led to some torture and cold-blooded murder, and saw two of them ending up on death row. They actually got away with it for a while, but that's mostly because the story was so bonkers that the Miami police didn't buy a word of it. Or they were incompetent. But it was probably a little bit of both.

Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is the ring leader of the group. He's unsatisfied with his job working as a trainer at a gym when, after attending a motivation seminar by a guy named Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), he decides he's going to be a "doer" and not a "don'ter." That's when he develops his scheme to kidnap one of his clients, a rich guy named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), and take all his stuff. He enlists the help of his friends Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne Johnson), and after a few bungled attempts they nab Victor and hide him in a sex-toy factory for a month before they finally end up with all his money, after which they try to kill him. Of course, since they're idiots they can't even get that right, so Victor is left alive and seething for vengeance.

Even with $26 million, Bay still gets the "Walk away from an explosion all cool" moment.

His only problem is that the police don't believe him for various reasons and, despite dubious circumstances, all the paperwork he was forced to sign while imprisoned which handed his possessions over to Danny is technically legit. Victor hires a private investigator, Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) to get to the bottom of everything, who is the guy who eventually catches up to Danny and the others. Of course Ed is helped by the fact that Danny and the others are, once again, really stupid.

The cast is across the board fantastic. It's takes a lot of talent to make characters this unlikeable be this entertaining, and in some bizarre ways the portrayal makes them almost lovable. Naturally these are terrible people, but you can't help but love Mark Wahlberg and his bright-eyed sincerity. Almost every word out of his mouth is either a terrible idea or something dumb enough to split the Earth in half, but he says it with such innocence and such gravity that you believe that to his 'roided up core he believes every syllable of it.

Even as he's being led away to prison, he's telling the person who caught him that he should work on his quads. I love this guy.

The only person who threatens to steal Wahlberg's thunder is Dwayne Johnson. Now, everyone else was great. They were fantastic. But just in case anyone out there was not yet aware that Dwayne Johnson was a shockingly talented actor, here you go. At first he's the innocent, even dumber, born again Christian simpleton of the group, but as the movie goes on and he indulges in the decadent lifestyle he finds himself immersed in, the drugs and money and pressure and guilt start making him crack. And it doesn't take too long before he's doing more really stupid things, which cause the spiral to go down even further. Meanwhile you can see the cold panic that is setting in right under the surface of his tough guy exterior, but you get the feeling he's too stupid to understand any of it. It really is a stunning performance.

The cameraman attempted the world's most epic high five with Dwayne Johnson. These are his last recorded moments.

One thing that has always remained constant with Bay is his style. As much as I despise the vast majority of his films it can't be denied that he's got a visual thumbprint that is impossible to miss. You know from the first few frames of the film whether or not it's a Michael Bay film. And "Pain & Gain" is no different. The shaky cam, the frankly pointless bits of slow motion, the nearly fluorescent color scheme, lots of lens flares, and the upward angle low-shots and dutch angels that have come to be his trademark are all here. It looks just like "Transformers" but without robots and Shia LaBeouf's stupid face.

And while visually it does border on obnoxious, had this been a first time director I wouldn't have minded. I would have just thought it was a guy with a strong and unique visual calling card, like David Fincher or Stephen Spielberg. I think I only find it obnoxious because it reminds me of other films I despise, which is distracting. I'm sitting there laughing my fool head off at Wahlberg, but in the back of my mind I'm dreading that any moment Skids and Mudflap will show up with fried chicken, watermelon and Kool-Aide.

That brings me to my biggest complaint about "Pain & Gain" - some of the humor. This is not only a Michael Bay movie in visual style, but also on occasion crap that's not really funny. This is a tableau of all the usual testosterone infused sexism, homophobia, bigotry and misogyny present in all his works, only it's cranked up to such levels that it makes me think that it's potentially satirical. I can't really tell. If that's the case it puts a whole new light on his other works, but suggesting that perhaps his brain-dead brand of machismo is a kind of parody is probably giving him too much credit.

That's his chainsawin' shower cap.

There's no way that it's a coincidence that so much of this film is hysterical, while also containing gags that are note-for-note the kind of sophomoric idiocy that we've seen time and time again with his films. The writers are talented, after all they are the duo that wrote "Captain America" and both "Thor" films. I find it hard to believe that they would have a fat man blasting poo all over a hospital bathroom after getting an enema, a priest coming on to Dwayne Johnson, Rob Corddry thinking that Walhberg telling him to "star 69" a guy means having sex with him, or a little person showing up to threaten Wahlberg and Johnson with a bat just because, well, little people are apparently hilarious. That crap is classic Michael Bay, and we've seen it time and time before with him.

I think it's those moments of non sequitur shenanigans that have nothing to do with anything that were put in there by Bay himself. They had to be. The rest of "Pain & Gain" is clearly parody. It's a bit mean spirited and by extension stupid because the characters are stupid, but one thing it isn't is nonsensical. Those random episodes of idiocy that reek of Michael Bay are too dumb to be satire. He's just getting in the way of the talented writers. It'd be like if Seth MacFarlane had been on the writing staff of "Blazing Saddles." All of a sudden Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little would step into a recreation of the music video for Toto's "Africa," because that makes sense, and we're all supposed to laugh because "the 80's."

But just as soon as that crap is over we usually cut to something awesome like Dwayne Johnson grilling human hands, so it all kind of evens out.
Even with those things in there, the rest of "Pain & Gain" is honestly kind of brilliant. And I think I've figured out why I liked these characters so much and had such a good time when in another Michael Bay movie I would have hated it. The reason is because unlike Shia LaBeouf or the rest of the cast in the "Transformers" series, we are never meant to like Wahlberg and Johnson. They are terrible people, but "Pain & Gain" doesn't insult us by trying to make us root for them. We don't necessarily want bad things to happen to them because they're so entertaining in their awfulness, but if they were to get caught we'd probably say "Well, they had it coming, the idiots." The horrible things they do are easier to laugh at when we're not expected to be on their side like they're the good guys.
Does "Pain & Gain" make me a Michael Bay fan? Hell no. Are you high? I still think his movies are generally borderline hate-crimes against anyone with a brain-stem. But let it not be said that I'm not merciful, because I always give credit where credit is due. This is a good movie. And Michael Bay directed. True, it might be good in spite of him, but it's still good. Now if he can just get away from CGI robots and do more stuff like this, maybe I won't consider scheduling eye removal surgery whenever another one of his films comes out.

Check out the trailer for "Pain & Gain." It's a pretty good representation of what the movie is like. (Red band trailer so NSFW)

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Pain & Gain" is a bit niche based on how utterly sleazy and mean spirited it is, but if you're someone who can appreciate some dark humor than this film is an absolute blast. I'm not completely sure, but this may be my favorite Michael Bay movie. Even if you hate him as a director, I'm seriously recommending this one. Crom help me, this might make my Top 10 of 2013. Trust me, I'm as surprised as you.

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