Take a true life story about a group of bodybuilders enacting a kidnapping-extortion plot seemingly taken right out of a Coen Brothers movie, add some Paul Verhoeven societal satire, cast Mark Wahlberg, The Rock and Anthony Mackie as your main trio, then set Michael Bay at the director’s helm, and you get the fantastic movie that is Pain and Gain.
I know what you’re thinking, Michael Bay has become the equivalent of an FDA warning label for cinephiles. His affinity for excess in all his films is much like the protagonists of Pain and Gain, always striving to get bigger at any cost. But let’s not forget the man has put forth some great films before. I will go toe-to-toe with anyone who denies the pure entertaining awesomeness of the Bad Boys films. And if you can’t accept The Rock(film, not the actor) as one of the great action films of the 90’s, then we can’t be friends. His Transformers films have simply left a bad taste in moviegoers mouths, and Pain and Gain serves as a cleanser and reminder that Michael Bay actually knows how to put together a great film when he wants to.
Some will say that this film is his apology for Transformers 2 and 3, but the more I think about it, the more I realize this “apology” is actually quite unapologetic. It’s more of a personal manifesto for Michael Bay. It’s just as over-the-top and excessive as his other films, he compromises none of his style from his previous works(revolving-between-rooms-shot from Bad Boys 2 makes a reappearance) but here it completely matches the insanity of this true story. Even when working on, as he referred to it, “a small character piece”, he sacrifices none of the excess and insanity of his filmmaking, but manages to make it work in such an unexpected way, that much like the plot of the film, you can’t believe at first. But it’s all true.
The plot revolves around Daniel Lugo(Mark Wahlberg), a Miami bodybuilder who feels like he’s been cheated by the American Dream that he’s idolized his entire life when he sees how it rewards slimy semi-criminal businessman like his new client Victor Kershaw(Tony Shalhoub). He enlists the help of fellow bodybuilders Adrian Doorbal(Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle(The Rock), who both feel equally cheated by the American Dream and feel entitled to more. They then conspire to kidnap Victor Kershaw and torture him to sign over all his assets to him. It only gets darker and more insane from there. This film is filled with moments that you could never believe would have happened, but they really did. I have read the articles the film was based on, and this film is scarily accurate to what happened. They only condensed a few characters and timelines in the film. But all the insanity that occurs is completely true.
When you think of a Michael Bay film, you typically don’t think great acting. But this film is chock-full of it. All the performances across the board are fantastic. Mark Wahlberg nails his role as the idiot-leading-the-idiots who thinks he’s so much smarter than he actually is. His performance is incredibly earnest to the absolute stupidity of Daniel Lugo. Anthony Mackie is a growing talent who really deserves more leading man status than he gets. He too in this film nails the earnest stupidity of his character Adrian, who is also teetering on being sociopathically insane. The Rock(not Dwayne Johnson, he will always be The Rock to me) gives a truly incredible performance in this film. It’s without a doubt the best performance he’s ever given. I’ve always been a fan of The Rock(except his Disney films), he’s just got such a natural charisma that makes him truly likeable to watch. In this film he reaches a whole new level that proves that he can actually act. His performance is brilliant insanity. His character begins as a born-again ex-convict who has dedicated his life to Jesus, and I quote “Jesus Christ himself has blessed me with many gifts – and one of them is knocking people the f*ck out”. Through the movie he goes from that, to a cocaine fiend, then actually grilling human hands, bordering on insanity, then finding Jesus again. It’s truly wonderful to watch. He completely plays it like his co-stars, with such earnest stupidity, creating an incredible character. Tony Shalhoub creates a whole new level of cinematic scumbag in his performance as Victor Kershaw. Just like Ed Harris’s private detective Ed Du Bois, whom he plays admirably as always, the audience finds such a hard time sympathizing with Kershaw even though he’s a victim of horrifying torturous acts, but he’s such a terrible inconsiderate man that he garners almost no sympathy from anyone. Without a doubt one of the best performances Shalhoub has put forth. Rebel Wilson, Rob Corddry and Ken Jeong also provide hilarious supporting roles as well. Even Bar Paly, a model by tradition, provides an actually funny performance as a truly dim-witted stripper who is convinced that the Sun Gym gang are actually CIA agents.
This is without a doubt the movie Michael Bay was born to make. It’s without a doubt one of the best times I’ve had at the theater this year so far, and will warrant repeated viewings by me. It’s an absolute blast, entertaining to the brim, but still has some sobering commentary on how much of a facade the American Dream may really be.