Monday, 2 September 2013

Film Review: Pain & Gain (2013)

Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie

Pain & Gain defies all logic. It shouldn’t work and it shouldn’t be a marginal success; after all, it’s a film about body builders and torture with zero subtlety or nuance from its director Michael Bay, a man who hasn’t made a genuinely good film since 1996. However, despite all of its many shortcomings, there is a film within all these 129 minutes to slightly recommend, but Bay does his damndest to make his audience find it.

Considering the quality of his films since 1996’s The Rock, the following comment may not sound like much praise but the first hour of Pain and Gain may well be the best thing Bay has shot since his Nicolas Cage/Sean Connery action classic. The tempo is quick even though the characters are given time to become established within this world, the dialogue is delivered well by the three leads, and the blacker-than-black humour mostly hits the mark whilst even delivering some genuine laughs from some of the knowingly idiotic lines. The sad, desperation for these steroided meatheads to live their own twisted version of the ‘American Dream’ genuinely comes across as a black satire in the first hour thanks to the comedic performances from Mark Wahlberg and, especially Dwayne Johnson as the ex-convict and now born again Christian, not at ease with the violent acts he and his gang are committing.

The first hour works because it is laughing at the men, and not glorifying their actions which at this point is ‘just’ kidnapping and torture. Alas, when the acts turn to murder and dismemberment in the second half, the film spirals out of control in all the wrong ways, and it is here where the worst of Michael Bay’s sensibilities are on show. We are told from the start that this is a true story, but the antics of the body builders comes across as comical and stupid because no one is getting hurt and it’s all about making money from the equally dislikeable character they kidnap; the film is working as a small scale satire and even Bay shows the most basic knack for storytelling, despite the awful slow motion in the first few minutes. Once, however, the characters become murders and lose any control they may have once had, the film falls apart.

Bay’s complete lack of subtlety, include all the usual trademark Bay shot and angles usually reserved for $200 million action films, are all on show here and are a clear demonstration of the man not knowing how to direct a film in any other way. As the story become increasingly violent and the acts become increasingly repulsive, Bay continues to shot the film with the same glossy, sundrenched and ‘sexy’ tone as when the story was just played for laughs. To Bay, this true story of murder is all one big laugh and any director with an appreciation of their craft would have altered their style to reflect the more serious nature which the story has now taken on, but Bay shoots it all like it’s Bad Boys 3. Exactly what Bay is trying to say about the lengths these men went to is unclear because it appears he’s not trying to say anything, rather just interested in gross-out humour and sending his camera 360 degrees through walls. Again.

It is in this second half where the genuine charisma Dwayne Johnson showed soon wears off once he becomes a drug addict. The fun as seeing a conflicted man committing the crimes, but now he’s just another muscleman doing bad things; Johnson is best when he’s not ‘playing tough’ (Be Cool is a perfect example) because he simply does not convince as a action hero, despite his physique. Moreover, at 129 minutes the film begins to drag thanks to Bay’s inability to tell a story and his maddening shot choice. In the hands of a talented storyteller, this film would not be at least 20 minutes too long, nor would it look like a music video, nor would the acts of violence be portrayed as comedic. Both star and director are out of the depth.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: It’s wants to be funny, it wants to be a satire, and it wants to be a glossy summer movie, but it struggles to be any of them for the entire running time. After all the promise he showed with The Rock and how he brought a new energy and style to the action movie landscape, Michael Bay simply has not turned out to be good, or even competent film maker and Pain & Gain may well be his worst effort at engaging with his audience because he is asking them to accept his film on more than just a visceral level; this isn’t Transformers or Bad Boys II where action alone can win him points for ‘artistic merit’ if nothing else. The film is saved by the first half and the genuine black comedy and satire it brings, but only Bay is to blame for ruining his own efforts.

A return to ‘Bayhem’ in the shape of Transformers 4 is next, so we all know the director will ruin both halves of that film rather than just one.

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