Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

Directed by Michael Bay

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas. Hollywood, CA.  April 28, 2013  8:35PM

For a number of years, Michael Bay has achieved great box-office success with his brand of testosterone-fueled, hyper-violent and high-priced action flicks such as "Bad Boys", "Armageddon", "Pearl Harbor" and his most profitable, the "Transformers" franchise. Most of these explosive endeavors have brought home big-bucks but failed to earn the filmmaker much love or respect as many critics gleefully deride his cinematic efforts as exercises in mindless excess.

While I'm certain Mr. Bay has not lost a single night's sleep over this slight but it might be possible that it could still be gnawing away at him. His latest, "Pain & Gain" is a major departure for the director as it appears to be a not-so-subtle attempt to show those mean-spirited critics that he can do "low-budget" or at least his version of that. I can't claim to be sitting in Mr. Bay's cheering section as I agree that most of his movies are pretty hollow and mindless yet "Pain and Gain" won me over, at least for most of the way.

This dark comedy is loosely based on the true-life case involving some horrific crimes committed by employees of the Sun Gym in Florida. Made for the bargain price of around twenty-six million dollars, Mr. Bay was already ahead by assembling an inspired cast and getting some hilarious performances from them, lead by Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo, a meathead personal trainer who was the mastermind behind the crazy plot to kidnap his wealthy client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and force him to sign over his vast fortune.

The idea was inspired by a motivational speaker (Ken Jeong) who made Lugo realize that he should stop being a "don'ter" and be a "doer". Because of his impressive, well-built body and good looks, Lugo feels entitled to the glamorous lifestyle that someone like Kershaw enjoys but doesn't actually deserve. Since the man is an out-of-shape, obnoxious a-hole, the fact that he's a self-made millionaire hardly matters.

A couple of guys are rounded up to help put some muscle in the plan although neither would ever be mistaken for any type of genius. First on board is Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), another trainer at the gym who needs cash to help pay for treatment as he suffers from a limp noodle due to his steroid use. Also enlisted is Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a hulking former drug addict and ex-con who has turned his back on his criminal past as he was saved by divine intervention. However, Lugo easily convinces him that the job will be quick and promises no one will get hurt.

The fact that Lugo is the brains of this outfit leaves one to wonder how this prosperous plan will ever get off the ground. After a couple of failed attempts, the boys actually manage to take Kershaw hostage but, not too surprisingly, an unplanned wrinkle develops as the blindfolded victim is able to quickly identify Lugo. Another unforeseen problem occurs with Kershaw being far from cooperative in handing over his money, requiring a lengthy capture and necessary torture. Eventually, Kershaw breaks and with the help of the gym owner (Rob Corddry), who just happens to be notary, the trio becomes instantly rich. But there is one last obstacle and that's what to do about the former millionaire? Since Kershaw can identify them, Lugo decides he's got to go. This persuasive gym-rat is able to talk the conflicted others in to helping him do the dirty work.

It should be no surprise at this point that Kershaw manages to survive the brutal attempt to end his life. Since the police don't believe his story, he tries to find a private investigator to help. The retired detective (Ed Harris) that Kershaw locates is skeptical but decides to take on the job in tracking down the gang. Meanwhile, Doyle, who has blown all his cash on drugs, women and a high-rolling lifestyle, needs to do another kidnapping. They find another mark; the owner of a phone-sex operation (Michael Rispoli) but their latest harebrained scheme winds up even more botched than the first, leaving this inept gang with a couple of corpses to contend with.

Mr. Bay starts "Pain and Gain" off quite nicely, handling the comedy with a deft hand while utilizing his trademark swirling and twirling camerawork to great advantage but by the time we move into the second heist, the pumped-up, cartoon antics and the over-the-top violence seems better suited for a "Three Stooges" short than the comic retelling of an actual crime-story. In fact, the director does himself a great disservice by displaying the images of the real-life counterparts at the end as it only serves as a reminder to how far disconnected from reality the film had become.

The saving grace that makes sitting through "Pain & Gain" well worth the time is the very fine performances of the leads. As he displayed in the dirty-talking teddy-bear comedy, "Ted", Mr. Wahlberg has the amazing ability to still come across as likable and somewhat sympathetic regardless of how many despicable and appalling deeds he commits. He makes Lugo even funnier by playing him far from the sinister psychopath he probably was but as a sweet but highly deluded nice guy who only wants his fair share, regardless of whether he has to steal or kill to get it. Mr. Johnson has proven to also be a fine comedian as he humorously zips from a God-fearing con seeking redemption to a high-wired, cocaine-addled mess.With these two taking up a large chunk of screen time, that leaves very little for Mr.Mackie to do but he still manages to briefly shine, most especially with Aussie comic, Rebel Wilson who is currently taking Hollywood by storm as she plays a nurse with jungle fever.

An upcoming film due out later this summer, "The Bling Ring" deals with another real-life crime-spree but this involves L.A. teenagers robbing from the young and famous starlets that they admire and want to emulate. This independent feature could make an interesting companion piece to "Pain and Gain" although I think the Sofia Coppola directed project (who is very used to working small and low-budget) will be much better modulated.

On the surface, "Pain & Gain" feels like a unexpected change of pace from the director's usual fare. A small-scaled comedy paired with overly exuberant visual bombast but as the film manically races to it's conclusion, it appears that Mr. Bay lost faith in the fact-based material with the truth not being satisfactory. It seems he believed that "Pain & Gain" needed to be bigger, louder and dumber.