Posted on Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013 by Germain Lussier
Michael Bay has never attempted a movie as complex as Pain and Gain. He’s made plenty of films that flaunt action, crime and sex, but Pain and Gain isn’t one of them, at all. Below its glossy surface, Pain and Gain is a dark, terrifying true story of one man’s twisted view of the American dream and how he strives to achieve it. That means the film’s main characters — played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie — are not good people. They have good traits, maybe even good hearts, but though they’re presented as muscle-bound super men, they’re not good people.
Making an entertaining and thought-provoking movie filled with despicable characters is not an easy task. It’s a tonal nightmare and Bay struggles with that balance from the very beginning of the film. Ultimately, he finds a groove and the film may win you over, but the journey to that point is as bumpy as a muscled arm.
Without a solid, jumping off point, the first hour or so of Pain and Gain is incredibly off-putting. The two main reasons for this are the score and the script. The score, by composer Steve Jablonsky, feels like it never ends. Seemingly each and every scene has a constant, almost club-like beat over it, giving the on-screen action an urgency it doesn’t really warrant. You feel tense, but nothing earns that feeling.
Then there’s the incessant, omniscient voice-overs from every character for the first third of the film. The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely does this to juxtapose the character’s actions and thoughts to explain their psyche, but they go overboard with the approach. We learn a lot about secondary characters, too, and this total access to everything, in action both on screen and off, makes the viewer feel very disoriented. We’re left wondering, what is the focus? Who should we be latching on to? And what exactly are we watching?
What we’re watching is the true story of Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), a personal trainer in 1990s Miami who believes in the American Dream: fast cars, big houses and beautiful women. With the help of his steroid-taking friend Adrian (Mackie) and ex-con turned religious man Paul (Johnson), Lugo decides to kidnap a millionaire entrepreneur played by Tony Shalhoub and steal everything he’s got.
Along the way, Bay never strays from his bread and butter. The women are gorgeous, the lighting is perfect, and he repurposes shots and camera moves from his previous films. He’s constantly winking at the audience, hoping we’re all in on the joke. Unfortunately, for a long time, we’re not and that feeling is the biggest problem with the film.
Then something wild happens. After about an hour or so, once Lugo and his friends are successful in their plan, Pain and Gain hits its stride. We’ve finally become acclimated to this odd reality Bay has created. The previously off-putting voice over provides the audience with a superiority complex over these pathetic characters. Bay’s wild visuals and Jablonsky’s score sync up with the story, which devolves into a weird, entertaining amalgamation of Pulp Fiction, Very Bad Things and Bad Boys. The last half of the film is so nuts, out there and filled with personality, it just about makes up for the shaky start.
Much of that personality is due to the standout member of the cast: Dwayne Johnson. This the action star’s most complex and captivating performance to date. Johnson’s character starts devout but devolves into a person who is manic, funny and frightening all at the same time. All the while, he uses his physicality as a tool to penetrate the heart of a real person with beliefs and morals. He’s a powder keg of crazy.
His performance is almost like the film in that way; it opens as one thing but becomes another. While you aren’t always okay with it, in the end it all comes together. Pain and Gain is like a huge protein shake of mistakes blended together into something delicious.
/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10