Is there any director who makes financially successful movies that gets more disdain that Michael Bay? I can’t think of one if there is. Pain & Gain represents a different direction for the explosion king, turning a “true story” into a relatively low budget — given the director, anyway — dark comedy about finding, or perhaps cheating, the American Dream. I’m not sure if it’s good, exactly, but I do believe it’s worth seeing.
The basic plot is simple: Three bodybuilders, Daniel (Mark Wahlberg), Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne Johnson) decide to kidnap and extort a very rich man (Tony Shalhoub) in an attempt to improve their lives exponentially, because having lots of money is the only way to go about that. They want to live rich and without worries. They want to live the American Dream. They believe that because they’ve put so much work into their bodies, they deserve to live prosperously. They don’t want anything more than that, or so they say. Suffice to say that things don’t go exactly as planned. If they did, we’d have a much different movie.
We might also have a better movie. It’s odd, but I think that if the gang was successful and all we got to see for the rest of the film — which would, as a result, be a lot shorter, something that would have been beneficial — was how they lived their lives after acquiring all the money they need, the point of the film would still be made, and we wouldn’t have to go through a second ill-conceived theft and the film wouldn’t have started to drag.
But, alas, that’s not what we get. The film is based on a true story, after all, which is something that pops up in big, bold letters during one of the man freeze-frame shots in Pain & Gain. “Yes, this is a true story,” it reminds us. “Unfortunately,” it said earlier. Indeed, these three men, and their victims, all exist or existed, and from all accounts the film is an accurate enough portrayal of the few months in the lives of these people, two of whom are currently on death row.
Does that make Pain & Gain disrespectful? The protagonists are the criminals, the antagonists are the victims, and nobody — nobody but a private detective played by Ed Harris — comes off well. Many of the antics of our bodybuilders are played for laughs, and when you consider that the film is trying to make us laugh when, say, body parts are being chopped up with an ax, and that those body parts are representing people who really lived, it’s comes across as incredibly impolite, to say the least. It’s true that much of the film is funny, but it’ll be up to you to determine whether or not the laughter is disrespectful to the real-life victims.
There aren’t many explosions in this movie. There is one, and it is big — and the type that a Wahlberg character previously parodied in The Other Guys — but that’s all. Apart from that, the film focuses primarily on the characters doing stupid, funny, or depraved things. Many of these moments ultimately don’t matter, which is why Pain & Gain sometimes feels like it drags, but the pacing is generally solid and there’s not a lot of downtime when you’re watching it. It’s only afterward when you’ll think “What was the point of that?” and come up blank.
Stylistically, Pain & Gain looks different from most other films, if only because you’ll feel like you’re constantly looking up at the actors. What felt like at least three-quarters of the film was shot from a low-angle viewpoint, because Wahlberg, Mackie and Johnson definitely need to appear larger, right? The answer to that is an emphatic “no,” by the way; they’re all huge regardless of what angle you’re using to look at them.
It would have been nice if the low-angle shot would have been used for a reason, to say something, instead of just because Bay liked it. For instance, having a lot of low-angle shots when the characters feel larger than life, but normal or even high-angle shots when the opposite is true. Something like that would have improved the depth and would have provided an actual reason for this change from the norm.
There are also a lot of freeze-frames, slow motion shots, an extremely saturated color palette, and a great deal of voice-over narration. The character providing this narration changes depending on the scene, and what will either give us the most information, or what Bay thinks will be funniest. A lot of the time the narration doesn’t add anything, but I’ll admit to laughing at it more than once. Providing the most laughs is Dwayne Johnson, a (supposedly) deeply religious man who is also a recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict. I’ll let you picture exactly what that amounts to on-screen.
I’m very torn when it comes to Pain & Gain. On one hand, it’s a relatively well-paced adaptation of a true story, one that’s funny and has some social criticism to go along with that. It also represents a much-needed change for Michael Bay, and a reminder that he can get a touch smarter than his work on Transformers — although not smart enough to actually do something clever with his overuse of low-angle shots. On the other hand, it’s definitely too long, and would have been much more effective if it had changed up the story to flow better as a narrative. It’s also difficult to take in and laugh with considering that the victims shown in the film were real people. Is Pain & Gain good? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely interesting and I recommend checking it out.