The winner takes it all – Pain & Gain review

Pain and Gain
By Simon Miraudo
August 8, 2013

Michael Bay, burdened with glorious purpose, pours his everything into Pain & Gain; the closest thing to an indie-spirited passion project he will likely ever make. It tells the true tale of three bodybuilders who kidnapped a fellow patron of their Sun Gym haunt and tortured him until he signed over all his worldly possessions. Reported in great detail by Miami New Times’ Pete Collins back in 1999, it arrives on the screen – with a few narrative ‘enhancements’ – courtesy of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (previously responsible for the positively un-Bay-like Narnia flicks and a Peter Sellers biopic). Paramount Pictures ponied up $22 million to fund this “low-budget” dream of Bay’s. Of course, only after he agreed to make for them a fourth Transformers (a pact even Faust would have been ethically troubled by). ‘If this is my only chance to be a true auteur, and to make a movie with actual themes and even some proper acting,’ perhaps Bay thought, ‘I’m going to give it all I’ve got.’ That he does. It’s an objective in line with that of his protagonists. And the result, miraculously, is impressive.

Mark Wahlberg stars as bulky personal trainer Daniel Lugo. With aspirations grander than his intellect, he decides to snatch an ill-tempered, unlikable client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), break his spirit, and extort him for all he’s got (those last two crimes are business as usual for most personal trainers, in my experience). Aided by the impotent Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Christian ex-con Paul Doyle (a composite character, played by Dwayne Johnson), they make a dastardly, mostly incompetent team. Their plan succeeds, somehow, and the three of them begin living the high life that once belonged to sandwich-magnate Kershaw. There is no cap on the American Dream, however, and soon their appetites for money, drugs, and success exceeds their willingness to tread water in suburbia. They’ve got to be bigger. And so, they follow up their perfect crime with a scheme so outrageous, and ultimately so repugnant, that a title card reminding the audience that they are still watching a true story is required.

Pain and Gain

As expected, some artistic license has been taken. For the most part though, this is a fair depiction of the events Collins outlined in his fantastically compelling articles (save for the inflated final showdown). Perhaps the most questionable decision is the softening of Adrian Doorbal, a sociopath portrayed by Mackie as a ‘roided up puppy dog. But this is not a sympathetic portrait by any means. Michael Bay’s characters have often been detestable lunk-heads and shrill, murderously unfunny jerks, but they were still the ones saving the world. Here, they’re drug-addled homophobes with no qualms about using a chainsaw to dismember corpses. Heroes they ain’t, even if they’re sometimes delivering speeches about physical and spiritual perfection in front of American flags. This is not a drill, people. Michael Bay has made a satire; a complement to Chris Bell’s critique of the United States’ poisonous culture of winning, Bigger Stronger Faster.

Considering Bay’s direction traditionally diminishes the talents of his actors, Wahlberg and Johnson give two fine turns in this picture. Wahlberg is well versed in imbuing brawny characters with pathos, and his version of Daniel Lugo conveys a genuine drive for self-betterment, as well as an internal chasm where his morality should sit. Johnson, as the teetotaller who falls off the wagon in spectacular fashion, is brilliantly funny. Not even I can believe I’m typing these words. I’ll continue the praise. Markus and McFeely, maybe inspired by Casino, charge no less than six of their characters with narration, offering us insight into their individual motivations, as well as reminding us that these were real humans with real hopes and desires, and not merely unthinking monsters, or worse, empty screen characters simply moving a plot along. It works. I can’t believe this thing actually works.

Pain and Gain

Bay pulls from his playbook some familiar shots and compositions, and these choices feel in-tune with the feature’s tone, and shockingly make narrative and thematic sense, including the execution of his usually infuriating 360-degree spinning camera trick. Even the supermodel he hired this time around – Bar Paly, as Lugo and Doyle’s stripper girlfriend – is relevant to the plot! Each frame is filled with grotesque, heightened imagery; pectorals are tensed, surgically enhanced bosoms bounce, elderly skin sags, and sweat drips off everything. The camera is used inventively wherever possible; at one point placed within an air-conditioning unit, probably to show off the ingenuity of Bay and his cameraman Ben Seresin. Every shot has to be bigger, better, and more audacious than what came before. Often, they are.

Ratatouille reminded us that a great artist can come from anywhere. Michael Bay is not a great artist, and Pain & Gain is not great art. Yet, it’s the perfect marriage of subject and filmmaker; a fascinating tale not squandered – but actually elevated – by Bay’s involvement. It’s lightning in a bottle. Do not expect this to happen again.


Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Pain & Gain is now showing in cinemas.

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