“Well, I didn’t think it was terrible or anything.”
For the most part PAIN & GAIN is not that bad in the usual ways that Michael Bay movies are bad. Check this shit out: I honestly had no major stylistic problems with this one, other than some late-in-the-game freeze frame/on screen graphic things that are supposed to be funny (listing the side effects of cocaine use, saying “this is still a true story” during a crazy part, etc.) Even the action scenes are fine and have a good energy to them. I think maybe when Bay is limited to what he considers a low budget ($26 million) he has to do more planning and less shooting everything from a hundred different angles to slap together later.
What I really expected to be deadly in this movie was the jokes. Of course I hold a grudge against Bay for the way his and Simon West’s editing and framing began the crumbling of the visual language of action cinema that led to the current state of things where only a very small percentage of American action movies are worth watching if you are hoping for there to be action scenes in them. That’s what he’s gonna have to answer for when he gets to the Pearly Gates, but it’s definitely not the worst thing about his movies – that would have to be his terrible sense of humor. BAD BOYS 2 and the TRANSFORMERSes especially can’t go a minute without some unfunny ad-libbed jibber jabber, or a cut away to a dog fucking something, or a sassy black lady swearing at somebody (or vice versa), or a cartoonish service person or government stooge being an asshole for no reason other than to reflect Bay’s world view. So when this joker said his next movie was gonna be a comedy I heard the JAWS music.
Thank the Lord, Bay’s comedic instincts are calmed down a little here. This might be another reason why a limited budget is good for him, he couldn’t keep the camera running for everybody to riff all the time. You got your occasional joke about a fat guy shitting, or minimum wage deli workers being dicks, and a couple other problems I’ll get to, but overall the buffoonery is restrained compared to those other Bay pictures I mentioned, making it much easier to take.
PAIN & GAIN is a crime movie based on a true story about a gang of Miami bodybuilders who, in the mid-’90s, kidnapped and tortured a rich guy to get money out of him, and complications thereof. Mark Wahlberg plays gym manager/personal trainer/ringleader Robert Lugo, who convinces his co-worker Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and ex-con gym client Paul Doyle (Dwayne Scorpion King Johnson) to help him snatch up his obnoxious client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and lock him up in a warehouse full of dildos. After several humorously bungled attempts (often ending with somebody yelling “Mission abort!” over a walkie-talkie) they catch him and keep him tied to a chair for weeks, forcing him to sign over his various assets – a house, a racing greyhound, a Schlotsky’s deli franchise by the airport – and take them for themselves, making up stories about Kershaw running off with a young babe to avoid legal trouble. They even start living in his mansion, making friends with the neighbors, convincing people they’re government agents, shit like that.
Part of what’s funny and crazy about the story is the brazenness. They really think they can get away with stealing a house and living in it, and for a while they do. They so badly want to drive rich guy sports cars and shit that they don’t think about how easy it is to spot somebody driving a stolen Lamborghini. (Hint: look for somebody driving a Lamborghini.) They try to kill Kershaw but he gets away, then when he goes to the police his story sounds so crazy that they don’t even believe him. Ed Harris plays Ed DuBois, the private investigator who took on the case and could not for the life of him convince the Miami police that if they didn’t do something they were gonna have blood on their stupid fuckin hands.
Wahlberg plays Lugo pretty much as his usual comic persona, an intensely sincere knucklehead. He sees himself as a “do-er,” making his American dream come true, talking about Rocky and Scarface like they’re real people (who didn’t lose in the end), and worshiping a douchey infomercial get-rich motivational speaker guy (Ken Jeong, painfully unfunny). Lugo seems too dumb to realize he’s the bad guy.
Since it’s sort of supposed to take place in the ’90s there’s an in-joke about Wahlberg’s past as a Calvin Klein model. I was hoping they’d put some Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch on the soundtrack too, but if they did I didn’t catch it.
The highlight is definitely The Rock, who luckily gets to play it mostly straight. He’s a tough guy trying to stay out of trouble and stay clean, but succumbs to temptation way too easy. His struggle to justify evil activities while considering himself a Christian gets some mileage, although Bay just can’t be subtle about it, he has to give him a cartoonish shrine with a light up Virgin Mary installed in the kidnap headquarters. Bay also gives him two scenes where he’s literally homo-phobic, and on their own they’re not really offensive but when you consider that it’s one of the completely fictional additions to the story it tells you something about Bay. Still, the Paul Doyle character gets some laughs and later when he starts doing coke again the Rock gets to do a type of character he’s never done before, and he’s great at it. A guy that big freaking out on coke is pretty menacing.
Of course you gotta feel kinda bad for Wahlberg and Mackie doing extra workouts to seem like bodybuilders in this movie and then they gotta be next to The Rock the whole time. It must be crushing for Wahlberg to be so outmatched in the muscle department. This is a guy who has always taken his workout pretty seriously.
Whether you like the movie or not, or even if you don’t see it, I highly recommend the (book length) series of Miami Times articles that it’s based on:
The movie makes a big deal about being a true story with its opening narration, and the onscreen reminder of “This is still a true story” during a hard-to-believe event near the end. Overall I think it actually stays closer to the real events than many of these types of movies do, but there are some huge changes in the depictions of the main characters. The entire comedic premise of Lugo, that he’s this oaf obsessed with self-actualization and the American Dream and shit, is made up. That’s kinda weird since I feel like for sure Michael Bay believes some of that shit Ken Jeong is saying, so what is he trying to satirize here? The real Lugo was also much smarter and more calculating. He was no dummy, he was originally hired by the Sun Gym to program new software. He had to have known what he was doing was wrong, because he lied to get some of these people involved in the kidnapping, telling them that Mark Schiller (called Victor Kershaw in the movie) had stolen money that they were trying to get back from him.
On the other hand, during that “This is still a true story” scene where Paul is barbecuing human body parts outside where he could be spotted, that was actually Lugo that did that. So in that one instance he’s smarter in the movie than in real life.
Doorbal is a much larger presence in the articles than in the movie. Unfortunately I gotta blame this partly on Mackie. I don’t know what it is, he has some funny stuff here and has given some good performances but in my opinion there is some type of movie star presence or charisma that just isn’t quite there, all his characters end up being weak and forgettable, including this one. Anyway, the one significant cheat is that it was really Doorbal that beat Frank Griga to death, not Lugo. They give his worst crime to the headliner, give him a made up subplot about marrying a wacky penis enlargement nurse (Rebel Wilson). Then they don’t even put Mackie’s name or picture on the cover of the DVD! They replaced him with Bar Paly, who in the movie is a minor girlfriend character and on the cover is the equivalent of the empty seat between two dudes who go to the movies together.
Thanks to The Rock’s performance Paul Doyle is the most interesting character in the movie, so it’s worth noting that he’s not based on a real guy. They basically give him all the important activities of 3 or 4 other guys that were involved in the crimes, plus a bunch of made up stuff. I’m sorry to report that the bizarre decision to feed his severed toe to a dog is completely fictional. (Nobody got any toes shot off during these events.) At least the dog was based on a real dog, really named Chopin.
At the end of the movie they show the mugshots of the real guys next to the movie versions, and instead of choosing one of the guys that they think Paul is most based on they just made up a fake real guy mugshot! (This was figured out by a reader of this great Slate comparison of the movie to the real story.) You gotta wonder if at any point during the planning and executing of the scene if anybody questioned the idea of hiring an actor to pretend to be the real counterpart of the actor pretending to be a real guy that actually doesn’t exist? I’m not saying it’s a huge ethical violation or anything but it’s obviously a ridiculous thing to do and if you have any sort of respect for yourself you’re gonna be totally embarrassed that you pulled that shit, right?
I find this kind of movie-fakery stuff interesting. I don’t mean to make too big a deal out of it. Obviously any reality-based movie is gonna be streamlined and dramatized and what not, and this is hardly the worst fictionalizer. But I do think that seeing what Bay and friends chose to add or change shows why he’s not able to quite pull a movie like this off. He’s not smart enough to find meaning in the events, and not disciplined enough to respect how interesting they are without Hollywooding them up.
Take for example the dumb scene where the gang buys guns, tasers and other equipment at a spy shop. They see Christian paraphernalia and a Stryper sticker on the cash register, so they pretend to be security for the band, then the guy acts “funny” and spazzes out about it being his favorite band. This is based on a real incident mentioned in the article:
“The Sun Gym gang hurried over to The Spy Shop on Biscayne Boulevard, owned by John Demeter, a born-again Christian. Beneath large banners reading ‘Jesus Saves’ and ‘God Is Love,’ they examined merchandise designed to shock, incapacitate, imprison, and eavesdrop on their fellow man. Pretending to be a security crew for a rock band, the gang bought shock-inducing taser guns, stainless-steel handcuffs, and small Motorola walkie-talkies featuring privacy-enhancing point-to-point communication settings, just like the cops use.”
The article paints the type of imagery that the best true crime excels at: this store owner praising Jesus while selling tools of horrible mayhem, these musclebound thugs telling a weird lie… it’s enough, the scene is there, but Bay and/or his screenwriters think they have to goose it, riff on it. How do we tie this stuff together? What if the rock band was Christian? What if the guy was a big fan of the rock band? What if Adrian actually said he wanted to “shock, incapacitate, imprison and eavesdrop on our fellow man”? Wouldn’t that be funny? Once they’ve turned it into a joke they lose the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction appeal of the story. That’s why I think their sensibilities don’t mesh with the material.
Before he made this, Bay always said it would be like his version of a Coen brothers movie. I mean, I guess he really is a fan. He put Coen brothers regulars John Turturro and Frances McDormand in the TRANSFORMERSes and Steve Buscemi in ARMAGEDDON, and Peter Stormare is in this one as well as ARMAGEDDON and BAD BOYS II. This is his baby-oiled FARGO. The problem is that the Coens are hyper-intelligent, they are geniuses of language, they write scenes and characters full of nuance, that work on many levels, that reveal something new the more times you watch. Even their dumb characters say funny, clever things. And there has never been any evidence of them being turned on by cars. Bay is not that kind of person at all, there is just no similarity there, and even on his best behavior he’s gonna have to have the wacky guy mugging in the spy shop. You can’t put a Michael Bay peg in a Coen brothers shaped hole without hammering it in and ruining the whole thing.
Still, I can’t entirely hate this movie. Even with very little attempt to re-create the time period (has there really been a ’90s period piece yet?) it’s a perfect world for Bay’s cameras: a bunch of big dumb shiny moronic assholes obsessed with their bodies, fake tits, expensive cars, strip clubs, mansions, driving fast… His cinematography is as nice as always and without being ruined by editing or too much flyin around or indecipherable piles of robot. There are some clever shots, like the one where Wahlberg does upside down pullups on a roof and it looks like he’s the arm of the bodybuilder on a mural, doing barbell curls. Like all his movies it’s way longer than it probly should be, but for the most part the story isn’t boring. Sometimes it feels like it almost works.
My favorite scene is a climactic one where Lugo (fictionally) kills a guy (Michael Rispoli) by throwing him against barbells, and the camera zooms around to show that in the other room Paul is coked out doing pushups and yelling about breaking the “house record.” It’s the rare flying-around-show-off shot in the movie but it’s for a purpose, the movie’s equivalent to the firecrackers in BOOGIE NIGHTS. And actually the best part of the scene is the prelude to all this madness, a character moment. This “porn king” guy that they’re trying to set up notices that Lugo and friends are full of shit, that they have no idea what they’re talking about. And he tells Lugo this, that they’re using business terms wrong and are “laughable.” But he’s not calling them out, he’s trying to be nice, trying to give them constructive criticism for their mutual benefit as future business partners. But it’s too close to home, this guy doesn’t want to admit to himself that he’s a faker. He thinks he’s a do-er. It’s a key moment, and more nuanced than you usually get in this movie. So I gotta give it credit.
On the other hand how do you have the Rock carrying around a skateboard in a bunch of scenes and never once show him riding it? That coulda been what was needed to put this one over the top.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.