After the mega-blockbuster smash hit Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, Michael Bay, the infamous filmmaker that consistently churns out terrible film after terrible film yet keeps making embarrassing amounts of money, comes back to our screens two years later with his, quote, “great character piece”. Pain & Gain is an odd film to review, since it’s based on the true story of a group of body-builders who kidnapped, tortured, stole from, and attempted to kill a rich tycoon. The story would, in fact, make a great crime drama. The only problem? Pain & Gain is a comedy.
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a bodybuilder and personal trainer, is tired of not living his life to the full extent. So he hatches a plan to kidnap one of his clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), an incredibly wealthy man whom everybody hates and wishes would just go away (a good allegory for Michael Bay himself, no?), and steal all his assets by torturing him and making him sign the transfer form. From there, the plot meanders around, never quite finding any kind of footing and just skips from one story arc to another without much sense of coherency.
I was curious to see how Pain & Gain would turn out, since it’s not exactly what Michael Bay is known for. You never know, he could turn out to be a great director for this kind of thing. Is he? No. Of course he isn’t. It’s obvious he doesn’t know how to work with a smaller budget (this is his lowest-budget film to date), and so the whole film feels cheap and restrained. All the things that were annoying in Bay’s previous films are here; the disorientating angles, the leering shots of supermodels (which as he’s blessed with a 15 rating, go full on topless in several scenes which inexplicably take place inside a strip club for no reason), the racial stereotypes, the slow-motion, the over-saturated colours that hurt your eyes. Everything is here. He does show signs of improving, though. The action scenes are actually possible to make out, and the shaky cam is toned down by quite a bit compared to some of his other films. The direction is one of the film’s biggest faults, apart from the big one that we’ll get to later.
The performances are passable, with Anthony Mackie and Rebel Wilson being the stand-outs, mostly because Mackie is the only one in the main headlining cast who can actually act in a convincing way, and Wilson just because she’s hilarious, proving that Pitch Perfect was not a one-off and she really is funny. Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (who, given his now insane muscles, I think is transforming into an actual, literal rock) are both the definition of ‘meh’, doing nothing they haven’t done before and better in other films. I won’t lie, they can be funny at times. In fact, the movie can be surprisingly funny. The script is pretty well-written, and the characters are rounded enough to make for some good black humour. I can see this being directed by someone like Guy Ritchie and it turning out pretty well. However, the humour is suppressed by a huge fact hanging over the entire experience. And now we’re getting to that big flaw I talked about earlier…
As much as it’s well-written and has a couple of good performances, I found myself being dragged out of the story every time I laughed at a line or a situation by the fact that it is a true story. Now, this can be done well (Argo, Catch Me If You Can), or badly (Gangster Squad, Pearl Harbour), and Pain & Gain sits somewhere in the middle. Even though it’s hardly faithful to real life events, it’s problem is that it takes the real life kidnapping and torturing of a man, no matter how much of a horrible person the movie portrays him to be, and plays it up for laughs. Hell, people actually end up getting killed and mutilated, and it’s all done for comedy. I wouldn’t mind some black comedy, but this stuff actually happened to a person. Hell, several people. It’s extremely unsettling to watch and it dampens to entire experience from something sort of amusing to something uncomfortable and just painful to sit through. Maybe people disagree with me on this front, but for me, real life pain isn’t funny. It’s depressing, and seeing a film taking the torture of a real person and making a joke out of it just seems like the worst kind of bad taste: the kind that isn’t funny.
So overall Pain & Gain is a mediocre experience hampered by it’s director and it’s true story status. Maybe if they had re-written the script and made it a fictional story it might have been okay, but as it stands, it just makes me feel uneasy and kind of sick. I don’t want to sound like a moral guardian or someone who can’t laugh at a joke in bad taste, but something about spending two hours laughing at people’s real life suffering just seems like a step too far.