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Pain & Gain movie review: humping the American Dream, Michael Bay style

A terrific movie about the American Dream, directed by Michael Bay. Hang on, what?

Pain and Gain

See itFlexing a huge steroid-optimised body painstakingly sculptured as a monument to itself, gym junkie and personal trainer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is determined to take his knack for physical progress to the world of business and influence.

In Pain & Gain, Daniel is inspired by motivational speaker and full-time “do-er” Ken Jeong (Johnny Wu). Jeong became a financial hotshot, traded his wife in “for seven hunnies of which I can choose” and — for a price — encourages hopefuls to do the same. Jeong’s shopping mall sermons and self-help commercials are the catalyst for Daniel to get up off his well-toned arse and make a play for high society.

“I just want a big fat lawn I can mow until the sun comes down,” Daniel’s boyishly naive voice-over narration tells us. We see him sitting on a ride-on mower, sparkles coming out his wide eyes, but it’s a chimera: the stuff below his feet is AstroTurf, not grass. He’s in a show room.

When we see Daniel riding that mower again, clipping real grass from an actual lawn in front of his very own McMansion, the moment comes with a hefty sense of compromise — a feeling that virtually everything of non-material value in his life has been lost and the clock is ticking on that new-found smile, which will be wiped off his face sooner or later.

The master plan doesn’t extend much further than nabbing a rich guy, strapping him to a chair and making him sign over his money. Pain & Gain is based on a true story reported in a three-part series in Miami’s New Times in 1999, about a trio of bodybuilders who became known as the Sun Gym Gang.

Our aspiring thief-entrepreneur recruits impotent protégé Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and built like a brick shit house born-again Christian Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to kidnap and fleece an obnoxious millionaire client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Things get complicated when Victor recognises Daniel and the trio of knuckleheads mull over what to do about it.

The story is Fargo-like in its kidnapping gone wrong trajectory. It evolves into a violent jet-black comedy about consumerism and flash in the pan success stories that take a bite out of the American Dream and burn its message of hope into a crisp, awful reality check, like the dismembered hand Paul fries on a portable gas barbecue after his fellow beefcakes struggle with a “piece of China crap” chainsaw. This is around the time the words “THIS IS STILL A TRUE STORY” park themselves on the screen.

Directed by Michael Bay – yes, yes, that Michael Bay, the guy whose movies (Transformers, Armageddon, The Island, Pearl Harbor etc) are brain damage to the senses, the contemporary equivalent of some kind of horrible plague – Pain & Gain is styled in the manner of constant cheap thrills, every scene slavishly worked over for maximum eye-bulging impact.

A convoluted soundscape of tracks and effects, shots that last for nano seconds, freeze frames, bursts of rainbow-coloured flushes and filters and sticker boxes flung onto the screen like McDonald’s pickles hurled at glass windows evoke the frantic feeling of latter era Tony Scott (ala Man on Fire, Domino, Enemy of the State) but cranked up a notch. Nobody can out over-produce Michael Bay.

America is “the most buffed, pumped up country on the planet and that’s pretty rad,” says Daniel, in a movie that’s buffed, pumped up and, yes, pretty rad; a bright, gaudy, glistening extended commercial for itself. Through design or happenstance Bay’s restless direction resonates sensationally well with the script’s themes and its bitter appraisal of modern America as a cesspool of slick surfaces and painted-on ideologies.

If this is a one of a kind symbiosis between great writing and a certain kind of direction, it’s unfair to sell the filmmaker short on the grounds of his previous work. Bay is making a movie overtly about the American Dream. He understands this story, knows its messages and gets the shallow and vacuous culture he’s sensationalising, perhaps because he has spent most of his career peddling its warez with a poker face, and virtually no outward suggestion he may be doing so with self-awareness.

When The Rock inspects a collection of sex toys, gazing at the words “THE GREAT AMERICAN CHALLENGE” brandished on the packaging for a huge dildo, you know these loaded moments aren’t happening by chance. In a gun shop, wanting to stock up on weapons, the bible-bashing owner of the place is seduced into kitting the three bulky lads up, without a license, because Paul can sing a chorus from his favourite Christian rock outfit.

In another scene, Paul (a magnetic performance from Johnson/The Rock) is the instigator of a deranged ad-hoc baptism. “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and saviour?”, he asks, hand on his victim’s head, as the hapless chained and cuffed shmuck with tape over his eyes sits there — I do, I do — munching on a cold taco.

Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus’ screenplay, loaded with great lines (“you know who invented salad? Poor people”) ties these vignettes together in the context of a botched crime caper. Innovative use of narration gives each major character, of which there are five (including a detective played by Ed Harris) a direct line to the audience. What drew Michael Bay to this screenplay over one with a higher explosion per page ratio (though he still manages to fit one big blast in) is anyone’s guess. If this was his first film, Bay would be touted as a bells and whistles rabble-rouser with a lot on his mind.

Alas, there is much water under the career bridge of a man who famously described his own style as “fucking the frame,” an expression that, more than any moment in his movies (until now) suggests he knows very well what he’s doing and might be smarter than we give him credit for. In the end it doesn’t really matter. Art is what it is; examining motivations of the artist should be a secondary impulse, not a primary one. If you’re going to get the proverbial inkblot out and start asking questions, even the greatest minds are doomed to disappoint, their masterpieces impossible to live up to in the context of tangible human responses (probably the reason Bob Dylan long held the line on the media circuit that songs like Blowing in the Mind mean nothing).

In a weird way — a way that never ceases to lather on the bling while remaining true to the point – Pain & Gain is more reflective and on-message than the other two American Dream movies this year: Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, both striking for different reasons.

It’s social commentary so slick and scathing letting it wash over you feels like getting lubed and chafed at the same time. If Michael Bay pleased the gods by making this twitchy, edgy, progressive gem, he will, as sure as dark is night, piss them off again pretty soon. On that note, the fourth Transformers movie is coming out next year.

Pain & Gain’s Australian theatrical release date: August 8, 2013.  

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  • 1
    Tony Gallagher
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

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