In a similar vein to both Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring, comes another contemporary Hollywood drama studying the American Dream – and once more, Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain also deconstructs such a notion, presented in a way whereby the very ideals of the ethos at hand appear somewhat ironic.
Based on an incredible true story, the film begins in 90s Florida, as we focus in on the deranged bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) who is determined to make something of his life, growing increasingly jealous of the wealth many of his clients have obtained. In particular, the uncouth entrepreneur Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Concocting an ambitious – and rather dishevelled – plan, Lugo persuades fellow fitness freaks Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne Johnson) to join him, as they decide to take Kershaw hostage, and have him sign over all of his wealth to the opportunistic trio. Sounds simple, right? Well, let’s just say this plan all gets a little bit Fargo.
Pain & Gain is a full on comedy caper, with moments of sheer brilliance, as Bay has you in stitches while you struggle to take in this absurd set of events. However, such laughter is followed closely by guilt, as this story is entirely true, and there are several real victims who are slightly disregarded in the name of comedy, leaving a somewhat sour taste in the mouth. Bay can be accused of being rather flippant with his take on such severe crimes, however in his defence, given the outlandish and unimaginable aspects to this narrative, he has told this in the most appropriate way, playing up to the more extraordinary moments with frivolity, almost turning this tale into a slapstick cartoon.
That said, there is a dark undercurrent beneath this title, providing some poignancy to proceedings. Bay reveals that Lugo lands himself in trouble at the very start – with the rest of the picture working as a flashback – creating a foreboding atmosphere, as we know to expect the worst. The story itself is just mind-blowing, and you can barely believe this is based on a genuine set of events. At one precise moment, just as things start to get seriously crazy, you do question the authenticity of the piece, but thankfully our director is on hand to implement a “This is still a true story” caption across the screen. Thanks Mike.
On the whole this is a fine piece of filmmaking for Bay, coming off the back of the somewhat underwhelming Transformers franchise. The creative camerawork is impressive, with one memorable panning shot moving between two parallel rooms that is masterfully done. Also, not many films can justify being two hours and ten minutes long, but this never gets boring. Given the richness of this story and the fast-paced direction, it could probably have gone on even longer and nobody would have minded.
Bay is fortunate enough to have a good cast alongside him too, as Johnson turns in the finest performance of his career to date. Following on from Snitch he really is proving himself to be quite the actor, and his portrayal of a cocaine-addicted bible-basher is pretty faultless. All three of our leading men impress, embracing the barbaric extravagance of this story, while their depiction of such inherent simplicity and naïve frame of mind is brilliantly earnest and sincere.
Ultimately, cinema is a form of entertainment and this picture does nothing but entertain. It’s a pumped up, adrenaline fuelled frenzy of a film, and one that will have you completely absorbed from start to finish. Be sure to catch this one. Go on, be a doer.