Netflix UK film review: Pain & Gain
Ivan Radford | On 19, Dec 2013
Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris
Watch Pain & Gain online in the UK: Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / iTunes / Google Play
“Unfortunately, this is a true story.”
That’s how Michael Bay opens his thriller, which takes the events of October 1994 through June 1995 in Miami and turns them into a dark comedy. The events in question see three bodybuilders conspire to kidnap a rich man and torture him into signing over all of his belongings. It’s the American Dream. We know that because Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) says it is.
“My name is Daniel Lugo and I believe in the American dream because if you’re willing to do the work, you can have anything,” he declares. Then starts planning to steal shit.
It’s hardly a subtle take-down of that long-held US ideal. With his heavy-handed themes of self-improvement, Michael Bay doesn’t dissect the American Dream; he drives a tank into it. The question is whether that’s funny. And, of course, whether he meant to drive a tank into it in the first place.
“Unfortunately, this is a true story.”
Bay goes to great lengths to remind us of that – even to the extent of pausing the film halfway through. It’s increasingly hard to believe as things escalate into absurd farce. A masked Daniel and his friend (Mackie) try to snatch their target in a car park, only to pick the wrong BMW. Then they are joined by Paul (Johnson), a born again Christian with more coke in his head than brain cells. Through their Day-Glo criminal world strolls Tony Shalhoub’s Victor Kershaw, a guy so mean and funny looking he could’ve walked straight out of a Coen Bros. film. “You know who invented salad?” he spits at Wahlberg’s downtrodden trainer. “Poor people.”
He’s not a nice man, but neither are our three heroes – and that’s how Bay portrays then, with voiceovers that spell out their motivations in big, brawny letters. As they BBQ body parts behind a white picket fence, does Bay want us to laugh with them or at them? Either way, it’s an uncomfortable watch.
The only thing that does fit in this uneven world is Dwayne Johnson, whose drugged-up saint goes from singing Amazing Grace to terrifying a packed hair salon with eye-bulging intensity. It’s telling, perhaps, that Paul is an amalgam of several people from the original case; an opening for some fictional comic exaggeration from writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Wahlberg, meanwhile, is a natural fit for our gormless weightlifter – he perfected that fast-talking bully act back in The Departed – but even in his knowing parade of Calvin Klein underpants, his despicable lead is hardly someone to root for.
As Bay runs around sunny Florida with a hyperactive camera and a big slow-mo button, the string of hyperactive nastiness gradually becomes tiresome. Is Bay intentionally taking aim at the kind of culture that he’s spent his career glamorising, or simple enjoying the ride? This is the closest the Armageddon director has got to a low-budget indie film and it’s like watching a ramped-up version of 2013’s other modern American Dream film: Spring Breakers, on steroids. Spring Beefcakers. But while Harmony Korine’s movie shared Bay’s taste for shoving women’s boobs in your face, Pain & Gain goes one step further, adding in gay jokes and, at one point, a scene where men argue over who gets to pretend to rape someone. The size of its irony muscle is debatable.
“Their American Dream is bigger than yours,” proclaims the poster loudly. After two long hours, you suspect that the film thinks this is a good thing. Wahlberg and (especially) Johnson bring the odd laugh, but if this is to pass for scathing, self-aware satire, it needs to be a lot funnier – and far more detached. As it is, one thing’s clear throughout: Pain & Gain is based on a true story. These foul things actually did happen to a human being. But as far as the movie’s concerned, there’s nothing unfortunate about it.
Pain & Gain is available to watch online as part of a NOW TV Sky Cinema Month Pass, which costs £9.99 a month, no contract. (This renews from 29th May 2014 at £9.99 a month.)
Pain & Gain is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.