Pain & Gain (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Pain & Gain (2013)

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Soon to be dead and bloatedAndrew DISLIKE BannerSomething depressed Michael Bay.  I won't give the power over to our collective critical bashing of his entire career, but Pain & Gain was a guaranteed smash if he had stuck to his normal routine.  It's about a bonkers story filled with a lot of violence, a setting that allows Bay's problematic views on women some context, and a trio of muscles for brains protagonists that would do well in his all action universe.  For Bay, this is an underhanded lob tossed straight down the middle of the plate.

So what happened?  P&G is two different films at once and because of Bay's choices both of them are boring.  The worse of the two is the story of American exceptionalism run amok.  It's a somber affair filled with Bay's slow-motion, billowing American flags, and sad music playing in the background.  The other embraces the worst aspects of Bay's films, casual misogyny, racism, and general disregard for people who aren't white Americans - but meshes them with an excellent script and a trio of superb comic performances.  The result is that neither works, the former failing to make much of a strong point and its somber attitude killing the brutal comedy of the other.

"We're looking for merchandise to shock, incapacitate, and imprison our fellow man."

"We're looking for merchandise to shock, incapacitate, and imprison our fellow man."

The problems with those clashing tones are clear straight away.  P&G opens right at the end, with Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) getting a set in and yelling his physical prowess to no one in particular, when a SWAT team arrives to bring him in.  The handheld shots of Lugo screaming how big he is are hilarious, and then the SWAT team is filmed in crisp slow motion while incredibly dramatic music pumps into the background.  Ok, I thought, maybe this is just contrasting the pumped up fantasy of Lugo and the reality of the police force set to bring him down.  I could dig that, but then Bay tries to mix the tones together, and it all goes wrong.

Suddenly you have the looming threat of the SWAT team, Wahlberg making the most ridiculous faces, the somber music, and none of it strikes a consistent tone.  It's a high wire act trying to blend the ridiculousness of what's to come and the reality of the situation, and Bay is not the kind of director able to pull that off.  Even when full-on violent absurdity is happening later he keeps a distance between the events on-screen by either blatantly underlining them with a colorful cut away or by playing them for as much faux-dramatic punch as possible.  It just doesn't work.

However, once elements of the plot are in play there are a few bright spots that got my interest peaking again.  Lugo leads his team of dumb body builders, Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian Dorbal (Anthony Mackie), to try to extort all the money and property from his overbearing ass of a client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub).  Their conversations about the plot and eventual execution forego any of that dramatic nonsense and play the ridiculousness to the hilt, becoming the best parts of the movie in the process.  Any interaction involving Johnson's Doyle is beautiful, be it the child-like attraction that Doyle has for Lugo, or Dorbal's many attempts to figure out the secret to Doyle's physique while Dorbal suckles on breast milk at a strip club.  Then when they finally try to get rid of Kershaw he shows he has the tenacity of a modern-day Rasputin and the intelligence to match.

If the entire film was as wonderfully absurd as the second act I'd be raving about this for months.

If the entire film was as wonderfully absurd as the second act I'd be raving about this for months.

These scenes are completely devoid of the dramatic distancing that Bay tries elsewhere in the film.  Instead he just lets the neon reflections of Florida glisten off of their muscles while they try to take advantage of someone whose only crimes are being different.  Here, the film walks a very different kind of tightrope and navigates it successfully thanks to the performances.  A scene of Doyle, devout Christian, trying to clear Kershaw of his Jewish lineage could have been disastrously offensive but it works.  I give credit here to the screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, for playing up Doyle's obliviousness to the way religion and culture intersect and to Johnson and Shalhoub, the former in the grips of spiritual joy and the latter gleefully chomping down on a soggy taco.

Moments like that are sparse though its near two and a half hour run time.  Instead, Bay continues to drag out each scene to the point of exhaustion, even reaching back into his signature shot of a camera circling between two rooms through holes while tensions break out.  First-timers may be impressed by this scene, but after the fifth zoom through a hole I was done.  Bay couldn't even realize that the tension was contained in one room and not the other and still had to have his camera circling around yet again.

Bay's "small film" is anything but that.  It's bloated in length, the same with its stars, and features only the worst of what he can do.  Still, there are enough flashes of wit from the performers and dialogue that it's not a total bust.  I'm just surprised it's not the total success that it so easily could have been.

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Tail - Pain & GainPain & Gain (2013)

Directed by Michael Bay.
Screenplay written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, and Tony Shalhoub.

Posted by Andrew

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