Pain & Gain Review

Pain & Gain

Sometimes, it’s important to appreciate something for effort alone; to turn a blind eye to mild anti-Semitism and gratuitous servings of greased-up cleavage and barbequed limbs and to truly commend something on pure improvement.

Michael Bay’s latest, Pain & Gain, is just such an occasion.

Sure, the film falls over itself in the way that a stoned teenager journeys to a KFC, but, laudably, it does try to explore actual thoughts. And, at times, even concepts – such as socio-economic inequity – and questions – like whether crime really pays and if pop culture is, in fact, responsible for mass idiocy and violence.

More importantly, Pain & Gain is not Transformers.

As scatterings of text throughout the film remind us, Pain & Gain is based on the true crime story of the Sun Gym gang, an inept trio of local bodybuilders, led by gym employee Daniel Lugo, who kidnapped, tortured and stole from wealthy businessman – and Sun Gym client – Victor Kershaw.

Finding themselves lacking the wits to outsmart their adversaries or even to ensure that their chosen safe-house is not a sex-toy warehouse, the gang soon finds themselves in a downward spiral of murder, theft and dismemberment, which threatens to be their undoing. Because, y’know, mo’ money mo’ problems.

Fronting the farcical and slapstick elements of the story, which was originally documented in a 1999 Miami New Times article, Bay’s adaption of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay chooses to lull the audience into a passive trance through a visual conveyer belt of the gaudy, grotesque and violent.

And for far, far too long a time – at 129 minutes, it’s possible to extort some assets in real time.

Thus, like a great anecdote undercut by a painful delivery, Pain & Gain manages to sabotage both story and heart through a never-ending deluge of MTV-style visual distractions.

Though suitably naïve and endearing as the gang’s leader, Mark Wahlberg’s Lugo remains largely two-dimensional, despite attempts to explain motivation through voiceovers.

This, as well as the confused characterisation of Kershaw (nevertheless played astutely by Tony Shalhoub, whose likeability somewhat negates the uncomfortable ‘moneyed Jew’ persona) is the result not only of the oversaturated-edit, but also of a screenplay more dedicated to punch lines than characters.

It is perhaps ironic that Bay – the reigning monarch of the dumbed-down blockbuster – has in Pain & Gain attempted to satirise the very empty materialism that his Hollywood vision reveres.

And it would have been a coup of self-referential genius had this attempt been successful, with Lugo’s ‘I watched a lot of movies (…) I know what I’m doing’ quip both silencing the director’s critics and single-handedly dismantling the contemporary bastardisation of the American Dream.

But Bay’s addiction to a chaotic and disparate smorgasbord of shifting camera angles, cartoonish sound-effects and a score that fills almost every second of the film rings as ‘filler’ rather than ‘meta’ and so ultimately destroys all hopes for thematic developments.

There are definite laughs – with Ken Jeong’s archetypal, jargon-peddling motivational speaker and Rebel Wilson’s deadpan comedic flirtation offering much relief – but, ultimately, Pain & Gain is a victim of everything it tries to subvert and so remains superficial and inconsistent.

And still it’s progress from Transformers.

Jenny Skidalski

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August 2013
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