The maestro extraordinaire of big, dumb movies, Michael Bay, is with Pain & Gain. While it’s certainly not his biggest movie (hard to top space rocks and transforming robots), it’s definitely his dumbest…but in a good way. For a large portion of the flick, Bay’s manic directing style, hilarious performances, and sharp writing come together marvelously. The only problem is if you know about the real-life story Pain & Gain it based on. If you do, then having a blast with Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson can be uncomfortable and morally questionable. Here are some spoiler-free thoughts on the movie.
Celebrating Villains: For those of you not familiar with Pain & Gain’s plot, it’s based on a true story about a group of criminal bodybuilders in Florida. From what I’ve read about the “Sun Gym Gang,” some of the facts in the movie are accurate, many situations are embellished, and most of the characterizations are way off. In the movie, they’re portrayed as bumbling idiots. While they were somewhat inept in real life, a lot of what they did was cleverly sinister.
The problem some people have with this movie is that the Sun Gym Gang murdered, tortured, extorted, and more. The movie can be lots of fun when you forget that it’s based on actual people and events, but when you remember, it’s hard not to feel guilty and/or uncomfortable. An action-comedy based on people that killed and performed grisly acts can be tough to enjoy.
A Perfect Blend…For a While: The first half of Pain & Gain works so well. Bay’s style is what it is — a frenetic pace that can be exasperating. This time around, it’s complemented (covered up?) by witty writing by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. I loved the job those guys did with Captain America: The First Avenger and I’m looking forward to their work in the upcoming Cap/Thor movies. The three leads — Wahlberg, The Rock, and Anthony Mackie (Papa Doc from 8 Mile!) — handle the dialogue and Bay’s breakneck pace skillfully (more on them later).
After the villains’ first successful caper, the movie stalls out. When the tone gets more serious, the movie becomes less fun and somewhat tedious. It’s a strange case of the writing changing the feel of the movie. Throughout it all, the visual style is the same — lots of motion, dramatic cuts, fast pace, etc. When the writing focuses on comedy, like much of the first half, the flow is wonderful. When the second act develops and serious events happen later in the film, the blend isn’t as smooth.
Charming Idiots: The lead actors are so charming in their stupidity, but they’re also diverse in their idiocy. The Rock is particularly excellent as the moron that’s sensitive and religious…and also fond of snow (the snorting kind). The role was perfect form him; he got to show off his athletic and comedic chops, while showing a somewhat effeminate soft side. The character was in his wheelhouse and he knocked it out of the park.
I’ve been a fan of Mackie’s ever since 8 Mile and it was fun to watch him excel in this movie. The smartest idiot of the group, this character is loyal to his friends, has a predilection for plus-size women, and is suffering from…performance issues.
On paper, Wahlberg’s character is supposed to be the least likable, but Marky Mark’s boyish charm is tough to resist. His character is the idiot that doesn’t realize the full extent of his stupidity. There are times when Wahlberg is so charming that you find yourself rooting for him…and then you remember that he’s a murderous conman…and you feel guilty for rooting for him.
The Rock, Wahlberg, and Mackie were wonderfully entertaining idiots in this movie. It would have been easy to have them simply be a gang of fools, but thanks to good writing and great performances, each character displays a distinct form of idiocy.
Hey, Remember the ’90s?: I loved all the ’90s music and clothing used in the movie. It was a marvelously ridiculous decade and it’s no wonder that these marvelously ridiculous events happened back then. The Zubaz pants, Stryper references, and “Blaze of Glory” soundtrack brought me back that glorious time. Hmmmm, I wonder if Zubaz are ready an ironic comeback. That would be cool.
Bottom Line: I absolutely loved the first half of Pain & Gain. It was funny and thrilling. All three leads rocked, while Ken Jeong, Rebel Wilson, and Ed Harris were great in their smaller roles. Tony Shalhoub was fantastic as the unlikable victim. Bar Paly, I could stare at for hours (bonus photo below!). It all comes together so well…
…until the writing starts to flatten out and the tone becomes more serious. What starts out as a super-entertaining action-comedy becomes a mediocre and macabre movie in the second half. I definitely enjoyed Pain & Gain and it’s something I will definitely watch on cable. I’m certain that I’ll see it dozens of times on TV and I’m also certain that I’ll fall asleep or change the channel during the second half of the movie for the majority of those viewings.