Ever wondered what a particularly sordid Carl Haaisen novel would be like if the rights were bought by Vivid Video? Michael Bay has the answer.
Very uncomfortably based on a relatively recent true life crime story, Pain & Gain concerns the ‘Sun Gym Gang’ who achieved notoriety in the mid-nineties for a Florida crime spree. Ex-con and body builder Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is engaged to inject some steroids into a fading gym by its owner. This he achieves through a variety of schemes, including free membership for strippers. However, after being inspired by a get-rich-quick inspirational guru (The Hangover’s Ken Jeong in a more of the same cameo) Lugo wants more out of life. Frustrated spotting rich clients he begins to zero in on Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a particularly obnoxious example. Kershaw is a Columbian immigrant and self-made millionaire fond of waving his wad under everyone’s noses and inspires Lugo to hatch a kidnapping and extortion plan.
The beefy bonehead needs help however and he first enlists chemically impotent colleague Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie). The pair look for some more muscle and get it (and then some) in the form of Paul Doyle (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson). Doyle is another ex-con, also an ex-addict and Jesus Freak. Initially Doyle is wary, he is trying to both adhere to the 12 steps and renounce violence, but he falls in with the gang after the advances of a gay priest lead him to rediscover his inner thug.
This is all in the first 40 minutes or so of Bay’s experiment in ‘low budget’ film making. And for the first third it’s a blast. The script is good, the cast are on fire, and the material suits the crass, hyper-kinetic film making of Bay (a man who coined his own directing style ‘fucking the frame’). However, there is a ‘but’ coming bigger even than the booty on the sex toys at which The Rock will marvel later in the film. As each story twist is made more and more sordid, the characters slide into greater excesses of drug abuse, greed and stupidity so the film becomes increasingly ugly and offensive.
Bay’s smartest move is casting Shalhoub, the actor creates a character who is ‘innocent’ but also so personally obnoxious that that the natural inclination is to side with the kidnappers (who after all are played by good looking film stars – the real guys were less attractive). Once the kidnapping scheme kicks off the film turns increasingly violent both physically as Kershaw is tortured, and verbally with running gags playing on the gang members’ racism and anti-Semitism. Kershaw is Columbian but also Jewish and Doyle takes it upon himself to introduce him to Jesus Christ as his personal saviour whilst Lugo adopts an exaggerated Columbian accent to hide his identity from the blindfolded victim. The problem is, that the balance is completely off, the film is relentlessly from the point of view of Lugo and his gang and starts to feel like a celebration and not a criticism of their less than savoury opinions.
Filmmakers need to be careful when presenting central characters who are racist, homophobic, misogynist assholes. Without due diligence such a film can be seen as an endorsement of such attitudes. Here each racist gag feels like it has been machine tooled by several screenwriters. In real life racist idiots rarely have effective dialogue. That the movie’s primary register is comic, is shown by the casting of actors Rob Corddry, Rebel Wilson and Jeong in secondary roles. For 40 minutes I will freely admit to laughing a lot, but as it turns to torture porn (and believe me when I say I use that term in full awareness of its implications) it continues to play for laughs. The aforementioned scene in which The Rock beats the crap out of a frail, aging gay man for making an advance on him is presented to be laughed at. Bay is still the same director who made the vile Bad Boys II and thinks homophobia is hilarious. For an example of how this sort of thing should be done seek out the 1992 Belgian film Man Bites Dog.
Far too late in the film it introduces a voice of reason character in the shape of Ed Harris’ as a private detectivem but by this point numbness has set in owing to the relentless barrage of tasteless comedy, violence and fast edited, high contrast visuals. The film finally plunges into an abyss from which it cannot escape when if depicts the crimes for which the gang really attained their notoriety (the kidnapping is merely the entrée to a feast of abjection). Much of the veracity of the film to actual events is questionable but the crimes are not. What happened to the gang’s victims was truly horrible, how Bay portrays these events defiles the characters and reputations of people who were actual human beings. Then again, what can one expect from the director of Pearl Harbour.
Bay slams the pedal all the way down from the opening scene, and never lets up, there is zero subtlety on display. Films as tub-thumpingly bombastic as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, or Brian De Palma’s Scarface, seem like the work of Terrence Davies by comparison to this. Bay has absolutely no skill for satire, especially when what is being satirised seems to be exactly the kind of dumb worldview expressed in his largely wretched filmography. Let’s not forget this is a man who has risen to his greatest success by bending a woman over a motorbike in a film ostensibly aimed at children.
There is a potential here for a satirical swipe at the American dream, how it can be shot full of performance enhancing chemicals, pumped up, and turned into wanton moronic excess. Unfortunately Michael Bay as a filmmaker is the very epitome of wanton moronic excess – he probably spreads it on his toast every morning. At one point Lugo tells his gang not to worry as he knows what he is doing because ‘I watched a lot of movies’. If the film wasn’t taking place in 1995, I’d say the movies he’s seen were all by Michael Bay.
Pain & Gain leaves a rancid taste in the mouth like a three week old protein shake that has been left out in the sun.
This review originally appeared on http://screenjabber.com