The summer movie season is here, and here come the big guns, starting with Michael's Bay's Pain & Gain and the third installment in the Iron Man series. (It could also be the last in the series, but who really knows?)
Both films are about various types of power: physical prowess, the ability to outsmart, the sway of the past over the present, an idea. And how they're made reflects that theme, too—from cinematography to editing to music and special effects (as demanded by blockbuster season). The results are, unfortunately, uneven.
Pain & Gain is, well, an unpleasant movie. Coarse and grisly, it's also instructive in the most bald and trite way. It preaches that crime doesn't pay—but we know that already. It tries to say something about our wealth-obsessed culture, but fumbles the ball.
Three bodybuilders are under the spell of the American dream, or at least a form of it. They believe that strength and hard work should almost by default lead to success—of the primarily financial variety.
Yet they're all weak in their own ways. Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) is a trainer at a Florida gym who has also served time in the past for fraud. Adrian Doorbal (Mackie) is a customer who needs money to treat his steroid-induced impotence. And Paul Doyle (Johnson), fresh out of prison and a new convert to Christianity, is also a recovering coke addict and unable to stand up against the threat that guys like Lugo and Doorbal pose to his newfound faith and freedom.
As the supposed brains of the outfit, Lugo proposes that they kidnap a wealthy target and convince him to sign over his wealth. No one will get hurt, he promises Doyle. He knows what to do—he's seen it a million times on TV. The group's target is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, in a role about as far from the lovable detective Monk as you can get), who manages a Schlotzsky's and has a few other ventures that feed him cash. He spends his workout sessions with Lugo bragging about his success, unaware of the mental notes Lugo's taking.
Of course, there wouldn't be a story here if Lugo's plan went off as smoothly as he promised. The gang bungles two attempts. When they finally do get Victor, he's made of tougher stuff than they imagined. Eventually, they get his money, but only after almost two weeks torturing him in an abandoned warehouse stocked with sex toys.
Things are fine for a while, but when the money starts to run dry, the trio has to look for another target—this time the kingpin behind a lucrative phone sex operation. But if things went from bad to worse with Victor, they go from bad to deadly this time. And a badly injured but recuperating Victor and a private detective (Ed Harris) are closing in.
This is a true story (we're reminded of that more than once), so we can't outright dismiss the story's seamier aspects. If they happened, they happened.
But what makes it difficult to hang on is Bay's filmmaking. Panache, flair, sizzle—these are all great descriptors for what he brings to a project, but so is sexist and dim. As a director, Bay exhibits all the grace and vigor of one of his bodybuilders doing his normal workout routine. You can imagine a lot of groaning, straining, and sweating, someone ravenous for more adrenaline, piling on more and more until no one in the immediate vicinity is safe.