Pain & Gain is the chopped and changed true story of the infamous Sun Gym Gang; a pack of ‘roid-raging bodybuilders who made a miraculously clumsy switch from ab-crunches to criminals during the mid-nineties. Featuring three huge Hollywood names, Pain & Gain is colossal in every sense – from the clenched jaws and snaking veins of the stars on screen to the slow-motion explosions and chase scenes. It’s as if director Michael Bay has stuffed protein shakes down a hosepipe and then splattered the contents all over the screen. Even the soundtrack pulses relentlessly. Yet, unlike some of his previous work, Pain & Gain benefits from being blatantly Bay-branded from start to finish in its action-packed manner. He is a director who drools over destruction, and Pain & Gain craves it. The soppy love triangle in Pearl Harbour juxtaposed against the relentless explosions looked ridiculous, and the same could be said for Armageddon. Here, the characters’ raucous and idiotic behaviour match the exaggerated action that Bay loves so much. The size and stupidity of both the characters and special-effects, fall right in line with one another. Bay himself of course is by no means stupid, but it’s difficult to avoid the fact that his action sequences have a tendency to boom on for so long that they become absolutely mind-numbing. He’s a director who loves to pummel us with brutality, but the characters in Pain & Gain bring such high levels of testosterone to the screen that this only seems appropriate here.
Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) has a plan, and that makes him a genius by default amongst the other idiotic members of the Sun Gym Gang – Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie). Between the huffing and puffing on a bench-press, you can just about hear a single brain cell rattling around between the both of them. Abrupt cuts reflect the leads’ skipping thoughts; they want their lifestyle to be as impressive as their bodies, but are too stupid to be able to go for gold in the working world. Many of the characters in the movie each get a turn to narrate, with Doyle pondering fondly about the leader of the gang: “Danny was a mastermind”. Lugo is of course, anything but, yet seems to concur: “I’ve watched a lot of movies Paul, I know what I’m doing”. The plan is to force filthy-rich gym client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub) to sign over everything he has through acts of intimidation. There are a catalogue of blunders along the way, but the gang do manage to experience a brief taste of the high-life before detective Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) smells a rat in the gym. It’s great fun to watch DuBois breeze his way through a mass of morons to uncover the truth, with pretty much everyone else on screen consumed by greed, the detective provides a welcome sense of integrity and righteousness.
Comedic in nature, scattered with blank expressions, witty dialogue, and slight tongue-in-cheek direction, the movie does well in its portrayal of the three meat-headed leads, ensuring that they are never glamourised or made to be truly rooted for. Dwayne Johnson is the most enjoyable aspect of the film, putting in great performance that shifts gears from hard-man, to junkie, to idiot, and sometimes going into overdrive to combine all three. I always enjoy seeing Johnson on screen; he has a surprising sense of comedic timing, and can carve himself a commendable movie career if he continues in this vein. I’d like to see him in a less violent role one day, but not one of head-shaking incredulity like his previous role in the Tooth Fairy a few years back. As for the film itself, some of the violence is actually pretty graphic, and occasionally needlessly so. The humour doesn’t always quite work, but when it does; it hits as hard as an elbow-drop from The Rock. The failed kidnap attempts, Doyle freaking out at a Neighbourhood Watch meeting, and some of the jaw-droppingly stupid comments made by the leads during their turn of narration all produce highly amusing results, and when the violence doesn’t push itself too far it can be engrossing. It’s probably Bay’s most thoughtful and reflective film yet. It seems to inevitably become immersed in violence from time to time, before allowing us to get to know the characters a little better through snippets of individual narration.
Bay seems to hold an unusual attitude towards this film, deeming it a “small movie”. Indeed, he seems to have treated Pain & Gain as if it were a toy of Mickey Mouse tossed to a restless child in the backseat of a car on the way to Disneyland. In other words, a mere distraction that will keep fans entertained until the arrival at the big destination. Unfortunately, the “big destination” is of course Transformers 4. Never judge a book by its cover and all that, but having sat through the clattering and clanging trash that were the last three Transformers movies, I can’t say I’m particularly looking forward to the fourth installment. The big irony here of course is that despite the director’s seemingly nonchalant attitude towards the picture, Pain & Gain is in fact the best Michael Bay film yet. The characters here are nasty and dumb, yet they’re far more interesting than the likes of Affleck in Pearl Harbour.
Perhaps the very nature of this story means that it can never truly or majestically take off. Balancing three banal bodybuilders, comedy, and an ultimately ugly story where lives were needlessly lost due to greed and stupidity was never going to be easy. The families of the victims have voiced their displeasure over the movie, given its effort towards creating a comedic effect. Indeed, certain sections of the plot have had to be fabricated, and Johnson’s character is in fact a mash-up of three real-life members of the Sun Gym Gang. If Bay had been more sympathetic in his portrayal of the victims, it might have worked to the advantage of the story, but as it is they are seemingly as greedy as the Sun Gym Gang themselves. Spending anymore than two hours with these morons would perhaps be a little too much, but the film strikes the right notes on enough occasions to warrant a solid recommendation.
Pain & Gain isn’t quite World’s Strongest Man, but remains without a doubt intimidatingly buff.