Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 13, 2013)
Surprising but true: prior to 2013, Michael Bay last made a non-Transformers movie in 2005 when he released The Island. Since the first Transformers flick in 2007, he stayed focused on that franchise.
Until now, as 2013’s Pain & Gain represents a change of pace for Bay – until 2014’s Transformers 4, at least. More reality-based than anything Bay’s done since… ever, Pain loosely adapts true events. Set in Miami circa 1994, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) fantasizes about living the dream: hot women, lots of money, and a chiseled physique. He works out constantly to achieve the latter, and the handsome, self-confident Daniel does fine with the ladies, but he finds himself constantly in economic distress.
This leads to legal issues due to financial scams, which finds him in a gig as a personal trainer at Sun Gym. He does well for himself there but remains poor and eager for the slice of the American dream he believes he deserves.
Daniel trains cocky, arrogant entrepreneur Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Inadvertently, Kershaw’s bragging leads to his downfall, as Daniel decides to kidnap the mogul and extort cash from him. To assist, Daniel recruits fellow gym rats Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to execute their plan.
After a few screw-ups, the guys abduct Kershaw, but their scheme doesn’t go off as Daniel promised. Kershaw proves to be a tough nut to crack, so Daniel and his partners find themselves on a deeper, darker path to riches.
Over his nearly 20 years as a feature film director, Michael Bay has taken lumps nearly non-stop. I don’t want to apologize for Bay, as he deserves some of the negativity that comes his way. Boasting a filmography packed with entries that favor style over substance, it can be tough to defend the director, especially after the general crumminess of the three Transformer flicks to date.
That said, I do think Bay gets more criticism than he deserves, and I suspect that if almost anyone else made Pain, it would’ve gotten a warmer reception. No one will mistake this for a work of greatness, but it provides a pretty entertaining little cautionary tale of greed and stupidity.
Bay does self-satire pretty well, as he pokes fun at his usual stylistic excesses to give us a fun parody of the broad, hyperactive action he favors. Some may think Bay doesn’t intend to spoof himself, but I disagree; I think it’s clear he’s in on the joke, and he seems to enjoy the chance to have his cake and blow it up, too.
Which works nicely during the film’s lighter moments – well, as light as a tale of kidnapping and torture can be, I guess. Pain earned some criticism for the way some feel it delights in the agony suffered by Kershaw, and I can see that. The flick doesn’t make him very sympathetic, so the potential for the audience to view Daniel and company as “heroes” and Kershaw as a “villain” exists.
However, I can’t imagine too many people actually see it that way, mainly due to the portrayal of Daniel and his pals. They’re all played as such meatheaded, greedy narcissists that I think it’d be hard to interpret them as “the good guys”. If people want to criticize Bay and claim that he glorified the criminals, they can go ahead, but I don’t see it; Daniel and the others bear few redeeming qualities and end up punished severely for their actions. (Kershaw also becomes more likable as the film progresses.)
I do think Pain works best when it sticks with the lighter side of the tale. It’s more entertaining when Daniel and the others come across as a ‘roided out Three Stooges; when the movie goes really dark in its third act, it loses some of its entertainment value.
This comes partially from the film’s length, though. At 129 minutes, Pain doesn’t run forever, but the movie threatens to enter “sensory overload” territory, as its non-stop array of violence and decadence becomes wearisome after a while. I think the flick could’ve lost half an hour and been more effective; like I said, it fares best when it stays with a lighter tone.
The actors all do well in their roles. Wahlberg, Mackie and Johnson are comedic enough to make their performances amusing, but they don’t veer into the realm of winking at the camera; I can’t call their portrayals realistic, but they avoid camp self-parody and work nicely. The versatile Shalhoub digs into Victor well, and Harris manages to ground the shenanigans.
Pain can shows its influences a little too obviously at times - GoodFellas, Boogie Nights - but it still holds together on its own. It’s been a long time since I last enjoyed a Michael Bay movie, but Pain turns into a pretty effective dark comedy.