Movie Review: Pain & Gain (2013, Dir. Michael Bay)

Pain & Gain

If I had to characterize a Michael Bay film, I would say explosions. Why? Because “BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM” is all one hears and fiery metallic limbs are all one sees during one of his movies. Want proof? Watch this video.

Did you see the BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOMs? Thought so. I mention this Bayacteristic to emphasize how un-Baylike Pain & Gain is. Want to know the number of explosions I can remember from the film? One, and it is not exactly a massive one. Most of Bay’s films are stereotypical action flicks with little to no plot and loads of explosions. This one is not like the others. I reiterate for emphasis: this one is not like the others.

Pshhaaa! I doubt you, Greggerz! The trailer makes it seem like it is about a bunch of bodybuilders committing crimes! Is that not like every other action film ever? No, no it is not! It may be about bodybuilders committing crimes, but it is not an action film. It is pretty serious too, another thing that separates Pain & Gain from other Bay films. Sure, there are gags in it. Some characters are merely around for the gags. Rebel Wilson’s character, the love interest of one of the leads, is an example of this. More on her later, though. For the most part, the film is pretty damn serious, surprisingly so.

Considering Bay’s repertoire, it is also surprising how realistic Pain & Gain seems. In most of his films, a nuke lands next to someone, they get a paper cut. In this film, someone gets punched by a bodybuilder? The person is down for a couple of minutes, at the very least. Someone gets shot at in this universe, it is possible, and actually likely, that something will hit.

Mark Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, a bodybuilder who wants more; to become a self-made man, just like his idols (one of whom is Scarface). Together with Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie, JT from The Hurt Locker), a friend and fellow bodybuilder, and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a new friend and born-again Christian. Johnson is a little iffy with the execution of some lines, but it is nice seeing him play someone that is not a traditional action hero, like most of his characters are. He does get the best line of dialogue in the film, and he does nail it quite well. Wahlberg and Mackie both do well in the film, as they usually do. They escalate their characters from antiheroes, which they easily could have done, into real villains. We as an audience do not realize this from the start, though. Why not, you ask?

Yet another thing that is very strange, the film provides voiceovers that take place in the present, streams of thought from multiple characters, letting us into their minds for a particular moment. Does this work? If it was only used for the main characters, it may have. However, two or three other characters get this V.O. treatment as well, making it gimmicky and ineffective.

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I must commend this film for doing something so rare in the Michael Bay canon, which is to use subtext. I have never seen one of his films where there is any deeper message, even if the one in this film is heavy handed. If you are curious, it discusses the common failure in achieving the American dream. This even plays into the misé-en-scene of the film, adding American flags in the background when Lugo is deciding to kidnap a rich guy. As I mentioned above, it is very blunt, but it is a massive step up from anything else he has done.

I have not seen all of Bay’s earlier films, but judging from his newer works, it is evident that his movies usually are not as stylistic as this. The color scheme is so, so, so ODD! Lots of neon colors fill up the screen at various times. Close ups of reflective glasses are shown many, many times. Odd clothing, set, and lighting choices are made, all complimenting each other in the best possible ways.  Time and time again, there is a freeze-frame of a character while they are doing something, the background is edited out, add in some bright color, and put in a caption. It was surprisingly effective as the film moved along, adding in some outside perspective. I know that this is a very odd thing to say, but Michael Bay’s style is the best thing about this movie.

There are a few weak points. I mentioned The Rock earlier, with some of his sketchy acting. I must say that I did not enjoy Rebel Wilson and the guy who played the little person. I have no problems with them personally, but it’s disappointing seeing them in roles focused on a one note gag, for the most part — their physical status. Rebel Wilson is a talented actress when given wit, but most of her gags in this (and in Pitch Perfect, which also bothered me) was that of her appearance. 

That is, in part, the fault of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Chronicles of Narnia series), who wrote this. Most of the bad in this film does come from them. The voice over problem I mentioned earlier, Rebel Wilson’s lines, its length… Oh, I did not mention its length? Yeah, it is about two hours long. The first hour or so was pretty damn good, going and going, with a point. The second hour seemed to drag on for much longer than it did, meandering in the direct aftermath of the kidnapping. If it was even ten-twenty minutes shorter, it could have been a great, great film. Instead, it is just pretty good.

That is enough to recommend it though. Even if you do not like Michael Bay’s usual crop of films, you should check this out. Bay fans should watch this just to see how much potential he has, and what good he could do in the future. Sure, he may need some more help with selecting scripts in the future, but it is all part of the process. Personally, this film makes me a helluva lot more excited to see whatever he has in store for us all next.

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