Pain & Gain Review – Bay’s Bonkers Bash

Director: Michael Bay

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (screenplay), Pete Collins (articles)

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub

Release date: August 8th, 2013

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 129 minutes


Best part: Dwayne Johnson.

Worst part: The Michael Bay-isms. 

Remember the 1990s? It was a far more peaceful time – back when boy bands ruled the airwaves, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air skyrocketed to mega-popularity, and Internet Explorer was still relevant. As a 90s kid, I look fondly back on this time and continually find more glaring similarities and differences between then and now. In the 90s, Miami, Florida was home to one of the most shocking crimes in US history. Action-comedy Pain & Gain is the ‘Michael Bay-directed’ account of this tragic event.

Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson& Anthony Mackie.

I used quotation marks in the previous sentence to make a specific point about this movie. Bay (Armageddon, the Transformers trilogy) is one of the most controversial directors in tinsel-town history. Many blame him for the death of modern cinema (Pearl Harbour was undoubtedly a huge misstep!) and continually criticise his ear-and-eyeball-shatteringly-brash style. However, his bombastic popcorn flicks have supported many careers and studios (dammed with faint praise). Since his filmography is a mixed bag (to say the least), Pain & Gain may just be his magnum opus. This hauntingly vile yet exciting and visceral action-comedy repeatedly states that it’s ‘based on a true story’. In the first three minutes, we see body-builder Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) impressively performing sit ups shortly before running from a barrage of policemen. The movie then steps back a few months, and Lugo is working for the man. Lugo, an over-worked yet optimistic personal trainer at Miami’s Sun Gym, is forced to work with high-paying client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Inspired by self-help guru Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), Lugo asks work-mate Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to help him kidnap Kershaw and steal all his worldly possessions. However, their incompetent plan is met with hostility from Kershaw, former detective Ed Du Bois III (Ed Harris) and Miami’s steamy criminal underbelly.

Tony Shalhoub.

What follows is a tale of violence, tyranny, anguish, emotional turmoil, and dream chasing. Yes, this movie is a stew filled with chases, enviable settings, disturbing violence, and A-list actors (you know, the ‘typical’ Hollywood movie ingredients). However, Pain & Gain startlingly deviates from what a standard run-of-the-mill action-comedy would do. Turning this horrific yet though-provoking true story into a relentless farce is a bizarre premise in itself. Here, Bay throws preconceptions of all kinds out the window. His idea of the ‘American Dream’ is clichéd and shallow, but it makes for a topical, discomforting, and enthralling movie-going experience. Pain & Gain clearly suggests that life is not worth living unless you have reasonable goals, a can-do attitude…and enviable possessions. In keeping with these pessimistic messages (such as they are), Bay’s superficial world (seen in all of his movies) is depicted here as a lugubrious, slimy, and morally weak black hole. Bay’s mean-spirited and chauvinistic creation knowingly points out the dangers that come of economic turmoil and unadulterated obsession. Thankfully, the familiar yet refreshing crime-thriller aspects keep this controversial movie in check. Throughout Pain & Gain, Bay alerts us to that split second when the lead characters go from laughably bumbling morons to villainous, delusional, and selfish delinquents. Despite the aforementioned abrupt tonal shifts, Bay makes sure the audience can ably laugh at, but never with, the three anti-heroes.

Ed Harris.

Ultimately, Bay proves with Pain & Gain that he has the potential to create gleefully satirical, dark, and multi-layered action flicks (and who on Earth saw that coming?!) Despite Pain & Gain’s glowing positives, Bay’s sexist, racist, homophobic, manic, and atmospheric directorial ticks are on display once again. His crass/frat-boy-like filmmaking style/sense of humour overshadows everything he touches. Bay’s repetitive and abrasive approach may test well with audiences, but he needs to branch out if he wants to be treated like an adult. If Hollywood were a high school, The Coen Brothers would be the popular, talented kids whilst Bay would be the nerdy youngster with a creepy yet obvious crush. In fact, Pain & Gain, conceptually and narratively, draws major comparisons to Burn After Reading and Fargo. However, whereas those crime-dramas are consistent, intelligent, and punchy, this movie fails to come up a clever, original or subtle stylistic choice. Bay delivers yet another blood, sweat, and expletive-filled universe. The 90s, by this movie’s standards, glistens with jaw-droppingly gorgeous bodies, bright lights, bold colours, and stereotypical comic reliefs. For some reason, many shots zoom through bullet holes and around characters. I’ve also never understood his obsession with low angles, explosions, and gratuitous slo-mo. Unequivocally, It’s the Bay-isms that distract from what the movie is trying to say about wealth, masculinity, power, and friendship.

“Jesus Christ Himself has blessed me with many gifts! One of them is knocking someone the f*uck out!” (Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), Pain & Gain).

The Sun Gym gang.

If you find True Romance/Out of Sight-esque crime-capers annoying and pretentious, you should probably check out Now You See Me instead. Like Now You See Me, the A-list cast elevates the mediocre material. Unlike that movie, however, Pain & Gain isn’t entirely brainless. Aided by the enjoyably silly yet unique narration, this movie highlights the aesthetic and magnetic qualities of its performers. Wahlberg’s enigmatic and captivating screen presence elevates his strange yet fascinating role. Used to playing hard-nosed cops and criminals, Wahlberg could’ve done this in his sleep. However, his wacky character is a steroid-filled shot to this movie’s heart. Emulating such masculine figures as Tony Montana, Rocky Balboa and Michael Corleone (“I watched a lot of movies Paul, I know what I’m doing!”), Lugo believes his muscle-fuelled lifestyle will bolster his ridiculous and disgusting get-rich-quick scheme. Despite his dim-wittedness, Lugo’s blissful ignorance and persistence are, at points, hilariously charming traits (similarly to his Boogie Nights character). The Stand out performer here is Johnson. Coming off G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Fast and Furious 6, Johnson has established himself in 2013 as the next Arnold Schwarzenegger/Sylvester Stallone-type action hero. Able to inject charisma, physicality, and grit into any role, Johnson in Pain & Gain balances wit, magnetism, and an inhumanly muscular frame to turn in a nuanced performance. His hysterically zany character, obsessed with Jesus and Cocaine (what a combination!), is a truly affecting and disturbing creation. I hope we see more of Mackie after his enjoyable performance here. Shalhoub, Jeong, and Harris deliver charismatic turns in small roles. On the other end of the spectrum, a little of Rebel Wilson’s ‘comedy’ goes a long way!

Turning this impactful true story into a pulsating action-comedy would’ve been an ambitious and incomprehensible task. However, Bay has done a remarkable job with allowing us to laugh at these absurdly dumb characters. Pain & Gain is an outlandish, insane, and lurid movie about the American Dream.

Verdict: A relentless, punchy yet bizarre action-comedy.

Now You See Me Review – A Botched Illusion

Director: Louis Leterrier

Writer: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman

Release date: May 31st, 2013

Distributors: Summit Entertainment, Lionsgate

Countries: USA, France

Running time: 115 minutes


Best part: The A-list cast.

Worst part: The convoluted plot.

Magic is a lost and polarising art form. Culturally preconceived as a hobby taken up by lonely, nerdy individuals, magic, like all other art forms, can be lauded when done perfectly and with panache. Las Vegas is known to be a hotspot for talented tricksters and cunning performers. It’s a form of entertainment that was bound to be brought to the big screen sooner or later. Now You See Me may attract youngsters to magic, but adults will, most likely, see through the illusion and debunk its many zany and bafflingly stupid tricks. Despite the starry cast and slick visuals, this is one magic trick that is all set-up and no payoff.

Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco.

It’s a silly, monotonous, and imbalanced action flick that doesn’t live up to its intriguing premise. Unfortunately, the cynical aura the trailers gave off is ever present throughout the movie. This type of Hollywood spectacle is reserved for families and friends who don’t want to think too hard about what they’re watching. Thankfully, the movie starts out simply and effectively. We are introduced to four talented yet snarky illusionists striving to become strong parts of the magician community. The magicians – J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) – are mysteriously summoned to an abandoned apartment by an anonymous benefactor. One year later, the four of them hit the Las Vegas casino strip and form a wondrous magic show. Labelling their act ‘The Four Horsemen’, their continuously sold out shows involve the plucky magicians robbing millions of dollars from banks and distributing the money into the crowd. After a French bank is robbed during a frenzying performance, The FBI, primarily represented by agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), and Interpol, represented by agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), are quick to jump on the case. However, the FBI will also have to deal with professional magic trick debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and insurance magnate Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine).

Mark Ruffalo.

Now You See Me is The Usual Suspects without the ambition, a compelling story, and believable characters. This disappointing movie proves just how strange 2013’s Hollywood blockbuster season has been. This year, in particular, has showcased many risky projects handled by extraordinarily talented people. The world of magic and Hollywood entertainment, if you go by this movie’s entertaining premise, are entirely similar. However, Now You See Me is as cliched, lifeless, and forgettable as the good ol’ ‘Hat-Trick’ (you know, the rabbit one). After being introduced to the four magician characters in a breezy first few minutes, the movie starts to slowly but assuredly unravel. From the eerie meeting scene onward, the movie is bogged-down by exposition, annoyingly cheesy anecdotes, characters used as plot devices, and bumbling comic reliefs. Make no mistake; this is certainly a ‘studio’ movie. It contains a plot that can’t decide what it wants to do or where it wants to go. Many scenes treat us to useless, corny dialogue that serves only to forcefully move the convoluted and exhaustive narrative along. However, the first third is intriguing and punchy. Combining some imaginative scenes (including a surprisingly entertaining hologram-based induction for the four magicians) with the hilarious comedic moments, this movie had the potential to be something magical (zing!). Unfortunately, the movie skids off the rails when the FBI and Interpol are brought in, and then spectacularly crashes in the final third.

Morgan Freeman.

Despite containing a few hysterical moments, including a pulsating and kooky interrogation scene in which the four magicians toy with agent Rhodes (“The first rule of magic: Always be the smartest guy in the room” is a cracking line), the movie’s cat-and-mouse chase story becomes exasperating and inconsistent. The focus inexplicably switches from the four exciting magicians to Rhodes, Dray, and Bradley. Thanks to this sudden shift, the pace and tone are distorted. The movie works well when it’s at its absolute quirkiest. The enjoyable back-and-forth dialogue, shared between the likeable Robin Hood-esque characters, establishes the light-heartedness this hyper-kinetic movie needed throughout. The movie is also sorely affected by the flashy direction. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s masterful direction in The Prestige, Director Louis Leterrier (The Tansporter 2The Incredible Hulk) tries to liven up each scene with his overbearingly obvious flair and sleight of hand tricks. With quick cuts and swishing camera movements, Leterrier makes it difficult to comprehend the crime-caper story, entertaining magic tricks, and inventive action set-pieces. Leterrier’s style wavers between insistent and bland – unable to capture the vibe of stimulating crime-capers like Ocean’s 11 and The Sting. It doesn’t help that Now You See Me‘s CGI overload removes awe and tension from the intriguing narrative. However, the fist-fights and car chases are masterfully handled. In one enlightening scene, Wilder uses magician’s props to stop agent Rhodes in his tracks – making for a well-choreographed and zippy set-piece.

“First rule of magic: always be the smartest guy in the room.” (J. Daniel Atlas (Mark Ruffalo), Now You See Me).

Melanie Laurent.

Like a magician’s prop, character motivations and plausible decisions immediately disappear before your eyes. We are uninformed of the Four Horseman’s ambitions, Rhodes’ wavering motivations or why Dray is interested in this case at all. Also, the bumbling FBI squad makes more stupid decisions and unintentionally laughable blunders than Wile E. Coyote. However, the A-list international cast saves this movie from becoming a completely forgettable and mindless mess. The array of likeable and talented stars brings life and zippiness to the strange and two dimensional characters. In the first third, Eisenberg and Harrelson bring back the snappy rapport they developed in Zombieland. The immaculate chemistry between the Four Horsemen may help you to overlook the sheer implausibility of their expansive on-stage magic tricks and elaborate Italian Job-esque heist. Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher, and Franco, despite their ubiquity, are forever enjoyable screen presences. Harrelson and Fisher’s comedic notes hit and stick when needed. Ruffalo is a charismatic force as the bumbling FBI agent. Despite having to carry an underdeveloped sub-plot, he brings levity to his generic role. Freeman and Caine, despite their electrifying chemistry and effortless charm, seem to be phoning it in, whilst Laurent seems weirdly out of place compared to the wacky characters on display.

Despite the zany comedic moments and enthralling cast, Now You See Me becomes a tangled mess due to its convoluted plot, preposterous plot twists, and baffling characters. Unable to decide whether it wants to be quirky or earnest, the movie lumbers toward its inexcusable conclusion. It may lead you up one path whilst distracting you from another, but the journey is still tedious and inconsistent.

Verdict: A slick, preposterous, and clinical action-caper.