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I saw Pain and Gain
May 5, 2013Posted by on
Michael Bay is most often presented as the public whipping boy for excessive Hollywood hubris. He has directed some of the worst reviewed highest grossing films ever (the Transformers film series, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor), and most people seem content to think he is an artless hack. Bay has done some pretty good work in his career, however. Both of the Bad Boys movies are solid action spectacles and The Rock is a great summer blockbuster with an awesome cast. Even the critically reviled Transformers movies have their fair share of action spectacle, particularly the assault on the pyramids in the second film and the destruction of Chicago in the third. In Pain and Gain, Bay’s latest offering (directed on a shoestring – for Bay – budget of twenty million), the action spectacle is dialed down in favor of a mostly character-based heist comedy drama.
Pain and Gain is the mostly true story of Daniel Lugo (an outstanding Mark Wahlberg), a personal fitness trainer living in Miami, Florida. Lugo dreams of the bigger and better things in life – fancy car, nice house, and even a lawn he can maintain with a riding mower. His criminal past and his lack of proper education continually hold him back, however. When he attends a personal help seminar from the enigmatic Johnny Wu (a funny Ken Jeong), Lugo finally realizes that in order to get a taste of the finer things in life, he will need to go back to his criminal roots. He enlists the help of his friends Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (The Rock, somewhat playing against expectations), and the three conspire to kidnap and extort Lugo’s client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a mean-spirited rich businessman.
What I liked most about Pain and Gain was how surprisingly funny it is. The script (penned by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) works incredibly well in highlighting the comedic moments. Every character gets a few good jabs in, with Wahlberg’s no-nonsense brains of the operation standing out. The Rock, who plays a sensitive lunkhead, is also quite funny in his role, and the comedy surprisingly doesn’t stem from his sheer massive size and frame. It is a testament to the script that The Rock can be so well-built in a film about body building and yet not have to rely on physical comedy being the focal point of the jokes. Supporting characters such as the aforementioned Shalhoub are also great. Ed Harris shines in his supporting role as detective Ed DuBois, and his repartee with his wife stands out as being surprisingly funny. Rebel Wilson and Rob Corddry are, unsurprisingly, game for some good material as well.
For all the harping about how Bay is a bad director, Pain and Gain is surprisingly well-directed. Bay lends a certain nastiness and bite to the film. The crimes the characters commit are on some level meant to be funny, but it is a dark kind of funny. Bay may have ended up mythologizing his criminal characters a bit too much, but I never really felt he sympathized with them. The brief, sparse action scenes are well directed, particularly a sequence featuring The Rock robbing an armored car. Pain and Gain isn’t about the action though – it is much more about the characters, and I feel Bay nails this aspect of the film. I have read complaints that the film runs out steam towards the end, and I feel like it does as well. But it is never poorly or lazily directed.
Pain and Gain is a really long film, clocking in at over two hours. This is the biggest criticism I have against it. The material begs to be cut back just a bit, and probably could have ended about 15 minutes sooner than it did. Additionally, there are a lot of characters stuffed into this film, and I understand why two certain characters (no spoilers here) had to be inserted into the end, but I think the film could have focused on the Lugo/Kershaw crime and would have had enough material for a solid film. As such, some of the relationships the film tries to build don’t necessarily work out the way they would have otherwise.
Despite the mentioned criticisms, I greatly enjoyed Pain and Gain. The three principal characters, especially Wahlberg as Lugo, are great. The script is complex with some solid characterization and a lot of unexpected laughs. Bay directs with an enthusiasm not seen since Bad Boys II (or maybe not since the crazier aspects of Revenge of the Fallen). Over all, this is an incredibly solid film with a lot to like about it. I recommend checking it out.