At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Pain and Gain “2013”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Dark Comedy-Crime/ Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Bar Paly, Michael Rispoli, Tony Plana, Emily Rutherfurd, Larry Hankin, Peter Stormare, Brian Stepanek/ Runtime: 130 minutes

I think it is safe to start this review off by saying that for a decent percentage of the population, if you make the time, put forth the effort, go through the protein shakes, keep your metabolism and heart rate going, your weights clanking together, and the sweat pouring out of you by the gallon, then you too can become an incredibly muscular individual. Yet even though to quite a few people in the population, that distinct group of humanity known as bodybuilders may have the body we all want, at least when they don’t pump the ‘roids, and praise must be given to them for putting in the work, but there is an unfair stereotype that exists which says for every phenomenal physique there is a dunce-cap to go with it. Indeed this is quite the unfair stereotype to put on this group of physical giants for the main purpose that it is not always true. Yet even though it is a common fact that it is a smart idea to work on yourself both intellectually and physically, it still should go without saying that are just as many skinny and stupid individuals as there are dunce-head bodybuilders who most likely are the kind of people who have to add weights to their barbells by the size of the plates instead of adding the numbers. However in director Michael Bay’s intriguing true crime saga Pain and Gain it is worth noting that it isn’t exactly sheer idiocy that gets the trio of bodybuilders at the heart of the story in a giant pile of trouble, though not for lack of effort. Rather it is also a “delightful mix” of horrible luck, terrible work in making simple decisions, a tragic lack of foresight, and most assuredly a giant pile of pride and uncontrolled drive gone awry. Indeed the fact that there is weightlifting in this film really is nothing, but a minor detail since this is actually a terrifically made and acted saga about human failure and how just rapid a situation can fall into complete and utter chaos.

The plot is as follows: Pain and Gain starts its riveting tale by introducing us to a man by the name of Daniel Lugo. A man who, among all the other details worth knowing about him, is the kind of man who is skilled in the art of building for a person the best body they could hope to achieve. This is because Lugo, we soon learn, is the head fitness coordinator for a local gym in Miami, Florida, but whose real job as far as he is concerned is building himself up. Indeed this is a man who manages to take immense satisfaction in what he does and takes great pride in aiding other people fulfill their fitness potentially be it through a series of grueling workouts/ training sessions or a simple smile and some words of praise. Heck this is a guy who managed to convince his boss to hire him on a promise to triple his membership and turn his, at the time, flailing gym for the older crowd into a top spot for both the Miami bodybuilding scene and for gorgeous women and it isn’t a spoiler to reveal that he was extremely successful in his attempts to do so. Yet while business is booming and Daniel is at the peak of the heap, he is still not content. Daniel, we are able to perceive, is just like the majority of us in that he wants more. His more however is that he wants his social status and net worth to match his Greek God, in his mind, physique. Soon enough Lady Fortune will introduce a new client to him by the name of Victor Kershaw that happens to have both of the things that Daniel so badly craves. The caveat of course being that Victor is a complete and utter jerk who drives everyone nuts by being as arrogant as possible and taking every waking moment to remind the world of his success. To that end Daniel decides to recruit his best friend from work by the name of Adrian, and a new guy at work and ex-convict-turned-Christian by the name of Paul to help him carry out a little scheme he has been cooking up. A “master plan” which involves the trio kidnapping Victor and utilizing whatever means necessary to coerce him into literally signing away everything he owns and giving it all to them. Yet even though the plan manages to actually be quite the success, it isn’t long before we see that one teeny tiny mistake soon leads to an absolutely out of control situation that may see this dynamic trio acquire what they have been looking for, but at the same time face the very genuine possibility of seeing it all go back down the drain again thanks to their own stupidity to say nothing of their vices and that lovely human emotion known as greed.

Now this is a film that manages to actually find a decent amount of its success due to what amounts to an intriguing mixing of various styles. Indeed this is a movie which although it manages to conjure up a terrific visual energy to work alongside the narrative, typical Michael Bay in action, it also manages to work in a quite unnerving sense of humor in the middle of some pitch-black dark moments both in the narrative and thematically speaking. Indeed whilst watching this movie, I can guarantee you that there will be moments where you will not know if you should be laughing or absolutely disgusted. Yet I can also tell you that no matter what goes down in this particular tale, there is quite a believability to it in play as we witness everything rapidly, but realistically spin so far out of orbit that this film really is a creative example of the old saying that “truth is stranger than fiction”. Yet no matter how crazy things get, the movie never ever is left reeling so much that it begins to go off the rails or fall apart at the seams. Instead, the film manages to not only retain a potent sense of cohesion about itself, and Bay’s directorial style, for as kinetic and energetic with the exception of several slo-mo shots as it typically is, there is much more of an emphasis on both narrative and constructing the characters in a way that is both intelligent and distinct. Indeed even as the events in the film proceed to go quite dark in nature, the film still gives the characters the ability to expand and change seemingly naturally as we begin to see their actions and the reactions to those actions mold and affect their lives.

Ultimately however, what this film truly is at its core is an intriguing albeit morbid story about not only the obsession of the material, but in the permitting of genuinely good ideas, powerful words, and positive outcomes to fall silent somewhere on their way to the human brain. Indeed this is best showcased by the fact that although he, rightfully so, takes pride both in his overall physical appearance, but also in his ability to have made the fitness center where he works what it became, he still lets that pride get the better of him and lets it turn into an overwhelming desire. Not only for the proverbial more, but to have the goods and status he feels someone of his physique deserves. In other words: he wants to be as big socially as his arms are no matter what the cost. Yet it will be this blind hunt for these things, or rather the absolutely mortifying and completely reckless manner in which he chooses to hunt these things, which winds up destroying several other people’s lives as a result. To that end, it’s worth noting that in all honesty this movie is very much a tragic story since it is a tale about how one immoral choice can annihilate a lifetime’s achievements. Indeed it actually darn well needs the underlying comedy in order to actually be somewhat tolerable for audiences. Yet nevertheless Bay manages to combine everything together with the hand of a pro. Indeed not only does he make this film in a style that is very much his, but he also, more so than about 98% of his filmography, is able to legitimately center the film and build a narrative as well as an intriguing cast of characters to populate it with and then expertly guide it along from beginning to end.

By the same token, we also are treated to a truly wonderful cast who are willing to dig in order to find the substance necessary to bring their characters in life. In the roles of our trio of main characters we see that they may already look the role, even if they look absolutely nothing like the real-life guys, but Wahlberg, Johnson, and Mackie are all willing to go beyond just these guys’ buff exteriors in order to conjure up convincing portrayals of three guys who all manage to free-fall to varying degrees both literally and figuratively. Indeed each of these guys all manage to lose something they hold dear throughout the movie and it’s not always something that they gain through their acts of criminal debauchery, but it’s also usually embedded in everything that they had worked so hard to achieve before going down this criminality-ridden rabbit hole. We also get wonderful support work from a trio of talented performers in Rob Corddry, Tony Shalhoub, and Ed Harris as the weasel of a gym owner who gets involved in the group’s schemes only to find himself in over his head, the group’s main target who if he wasn’t such a jerk…..well I’ll let you see for yourself, and as a stoic yet decent retired private detective who finds himself shanghai’d into investigating the trio of bodybuilder criminals respectively. Yet even though Mark Wahlberg, who is excellent in this as the scheming yet loonier than a looney tune and prone to anger Lugo and Anthony Mackie who brings a scheming yet somewhat more level headed approach to the role of Adrian also do wonderful work, I feel that out of everyone in this truly talented cast, I believe that Dwayne Johnson above all manages to deliver to audiences a wonderful three-dimensional performance as Paul. Indeed as the most spiritual, pure (at least at first) and reluctant member of the trio, Paul finds himself having to combat both who he is on the inside as well as his self-enforced vow to live a cleaner and more spiritual life whilst also being accepted by Daniel and Adrian who coerce him into doing things that he may find despicable or much, much worse. Indeed Johnson manages to effectively convince the audience of this character’s commitment to up keeping both his faith and his inner dignity even when finding himself facing some of the worst temptations possible and also forced to doing things that go against what he believes in. Yet even with some of the turns and twists that this character takes throughout the film, Johnson is still able to both roll with it, and also showcase the genuine heart and soul of Paul through and through. Suffice it to say this may not be an iconic and pitch-black look at some truly ruthless people, but it is still quite effective and manages to really help to define this film better than the various superficial elements at play might otherwise permit.

All in all it should be said that Pain & Gain is a riveting example of less of the first one, and much more of the last one. I say that because there really truly is quite a bit to like about what is undoubtedly the most character-oriented movie that Michael Bay has managed to make yet. Indeed a morbid, pitch-black in a way sense of humor, tragedy, adrenaline, and curiosity all blend together into a quite novel film dealing with mankind’s “talent” for losing sight of absolutely everything when on the hunt for material items particularly when said hunt involves underhanded methods and cruddy choices made prior, during, and following the corruptible acts. Thus we also witness as the narrative evolves and expands, it may become more absurd, but it also results in a much tighter narrative. Thus when you combine that alongside a solid directorial effort, terrific pacing, and a terrific cast of characters really help to ensure that this film is a delight and a winner through and through. On a scale of 1-5 I give Pain and Gain a solid 3.5 out of 5.