‘Pain and Gain’ Review
I watch a lot of 'Project Runway.' My wife likes it -- and, yeah, I like it too. A show dedicated to fashion design that features creative and powerful women is a weird thing to think about while watching a Michael Bay movie but that's exactly what I did during 'Pain and Gain.' Bay could learn a thing or two from that show about editing. Not in the cinematic, cutting shots together sense; that he's got. This is a different kind of editing.
It's the kind that is often called out by the 'Runway' judges when they tell the contestants (I'm paraphrasing), "This is too busy. You need to edit. That blue fuzzy hat that looks like a tribble distracts from the gorgeous, ornately sequined dress. The dress is enough. You don't need the tribble hat. Edit."
A Michael Bay movie -- particularly 'Pain & Gain' -- is a sequined dress with a blue tribble hat.
'Pain and Gain,' originally chronicled in the Miami New Times by Pete Collins, is an incredible story full of money, drugs, sex, kidnapping, extortion, and a hideous perversion of the American dream. It is captivating on its own. It needs no blue tribble hat -- but Bay, who never met a shot he couldn't overwork into in-your-face awesomeness, gives it one anyway, plus matching, light-up bracelet and necklace. Yes, the movie looks good. Yes, it has style. But it has so much of it that it keeps one of the craziest true crime tales in recent memory at well-muscled arm's length.
It follows a trio of amoral bodybuilders -- Daniel (Mark Wahlberg), Adrian (Anthony Mackie), and Paul (Dwayne Johnson) -- who believe, as Daniel puts it, that "if you're willing to do the work, you can have anything." Their beliefs have been formed by years of punishing workouts at Miami's Sun Gym, and a lifetime of watching countless gangster movies. "I believe in fitness," Daniel says by way of voiceover introduction, echoing the famous first line in 'The Godfather.' Daniel is so rock stupid he probably doesn't even realize he stole it.
Even if he did, he wouldn't care; Daniel and his cronies believe in hard work, but they don't distinguish between the legal and illegal kinds. They hatch a get-rich-quick scheme to kidnap and extort one of Daniel's clients, Victor (Tony Shalhoub), a sandwich shop mogul. They snatch him, torture him, and force him to sign over all of his money, possessions, and home. But the signatures are worthless unless witnessed by a notary public. Daniel never thought about that. Daniel doesn't think about a lot of things.
In other words, Daniel is the perfect Michael Bay protagonist. Over the course of ten feature films, Bay has made lots of movies about cops, FBI agents, soldiers, clones, more cops, and tons of transforming robots and none about actual, recognizable human beings. With 'Pain & Gain' he almost does it. It's easily his best movie in a decade.
But it's still, in typical Bay fashion, too overloaded with flash -- multiple voiceovers, slow-motion, gun- and human-mounted cameras -- and its idea of satire are mostly cheap jokes at the expense of the victims of the bodybuilders' crimes. 'Pain & Gain' opens impressively, with Daniel's warped perspective on America and bodybuilding and an effectively edited montage bringing us inside his world of protein shakes, excessive ambition, and crime. It's Michael Bay's 'Goodfellas' and his 'Fargo' all at once. It's actually pretty compelling.
But soon every character in the movie gets their own voiceover and flashback to explain their past. And then Bay piles on the crass jokes (Explosive diarrhea sight gags! People barbecuing other people!) and tops them off with so much symbolism -- American flags, erectile dysfunction subplots, abandoned warehouses full of gigantic dildos -- that his message about our country and its selfish, craven citizens becomes as subtle as, well, a Michael Bay movie.
At least this Michael Bay movie does not include any jive-talking robots, and does feature a few strong performances. The top of the list is Johnson, who creates a complete and complex Paul, a reformed junkie ex-con lured back to the dark side by Daniel's endless seductions. Johnson, even bigger and sweatier than he's ever been onscreen before (which is saying something), makes each of Paul's transformations -- from choir boy to hell raiser and back -- terrifically satisfying and often very funny. And Ed Harris brings a welcome grace note of seriousness to Bay's juvenile schtick as a private detective hired to investigate Victor's case (Wahlberg, while impressively beefy as the 'roided out Daniel, is mostly just doing his bug-eyed, motor-mouthed routine from the '80s section of 'Boogie Nights').
Daniel and his bros act like guys who think life should be more like a Michael Bay movie. Bay treats them like buffoons -- and also, when his camera swoops around them at low angels in trademark fashion, like mythic gods. Does 'Pain & Gain' want to indict its protagonists' greed or revel in their bad behavior? I'm not really sure. Which is why it could use more editing.
'Pain and Gain' opens in theaters on April 26.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’