Get out your Ninja costumes and protein shakes, we're watching Pain & Gain!
First off I'd like to introduce my awesome new editor Kristin Bowles! Wooooo Yay!
Based on a true story, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a bodybuilder who wants more from life. He decides the only way to do this is to take money from a rich prick named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) with his bodybuilding pals, Adrien (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwane Johnson). Horrible, terrible things ensue.
So yes, this is a Michel Bay movie. And it's good! It's very good. He is awful when he's being asked to bring a beloved childhood franchise to life, but he's fantastic when he's making action-packed crime dramas. That's not what I'm having trouble with. What I'm having trouble coming to terms with is… did he…? Did Michael Bay just make a really good… NOIR?
Let me explain.
First we have to consider the story. Is it a typical noir story? A bunch of regular down ‘n' out guys want to kidnap a rich semi-criminal dirt-bag and take his money, but things spiral terribly out of control, and they need to do increasingly terrible things to cover it up. Yeah, that sounds like a noir. If it was set in the 1940's with tough guys in hats, there'd be no question. And it's based on a real life story. A CRAZY real-life story. There've been a handful of so-awful-it's-true noirs, such as Gun Crazy. So check on that.
Then there's the setting. It needs a moody atmosphere. The mid-nineties workout scene isn't usually associated with noir, but damned if it doesn't work in this film. The sometimes melancholy, sometimes schizophrenic music is a big help with that. Very early on you know that nothing good can come of this. They live in a glittery environment of beautiful babes, booze, drugs, guns, and loud club music. It takes place in abandoned buildings, warehouses, strip clubs, and back-rooms with meetings. Even the nice upscale neighborhood that Lugo eventually moves into has an undercurrent of depravity. This could easily be a Grand Theft Auto game. Bay does an immaculate job getting the glitz and ridiculous color of the 90's. So check on the environment.
Now onto the characters, who, per noir law, can't be all good or all bad but varying shades of grey. This is probably the biggest indicator of its noir status. Daniel Lugo and his thug friends are not good people. They're not all bad either, but no one would call them heroes. For all his talk about wanting to make America a better place, Lugo isn't the brightest bulb in the box. He's got anger issues, and he's the one whose great idea it is to do this whole dirty deed. Adrien doesn't seem like too bad a guy, except he has no problem going along with the crime as long as he can get enough money to get his penis working again (a side effect of all the ‘roids). Paul is the most conflicted of the group. Played wonderfully and hilariously by Dwane 'The Rock' Johnson, he's an ex-con who's trying to get back on the straight and narrow thanks to Jesus. But his cocaine addiction and love of pretty girls and expensive toys keeps pulling him down. Even the guy they rob from isn't a saint. In fact, when they do take all of Kershaw's stuff, no one cares because he's such a huge prick. The only one who's not stained is detective Ed Dubois, played by Ed Harris, the only guy who wants to bring order to this filthy town. So great noir characters? Check. Definitely.
Then there's my favorite aspect of any noir, the choice. It's not enough that bad things happen to good people. No, good people have to make bad decisions and have bad things happen to them. They bring this on themselves. Before this whole ridiculous fiasco, Lugo was caught stealing money from little ol' grannies and grandpas. He could have stayed on the right and true, but he CHOSE to take the dirty path to fame and riches. Even when they'd done it and nearly gotten away, he could have walked away then, but he didn't. He was driven to get more and do worse. They all were. Paul is the same. He could have stayed true, but he chose his own personal snow-dusted hell over virtue.
And oh hey, how about a little bit of the ol' ultra-violence? I wouldn't say it's necessarily needed to be classified as noir, but violence and noir definitely go hand in hand. Pain & Gain is very violent. People get shot, drugs are overdosed, weights are thrown, guys are tortured and beaten with sex toys, cars explode (this is a Michael Bay movie, after all), toes are blown off, blood is splattered, and there's a chainsaw and lye involved at one point. So yeah, pretty violent. Leave the kiddies at home.
And then there's the classic noir experimentation. I don't want to say Michael Bay is good at cinematography because I've seen all three Transformer movies, but here he has a lot of interesting camera work, and some of it is really good. It's hectic and all over the place which helps to give this feeling of a frenzied, crazy narrative. He uses shaky cam, handhelds, slow-mo, and cheap cams attached to cars and people to give a 90's reality television vibe. There's one shot I especially love in which the camera flies around a house through a hole in a wall between a party and a backdoor meeting that's just amazingly done. Check for experimentation!
Bonus round: narration. It's not uncommon for film noirs to have their main character narrate their lurid tale, and it's even celebrated if they put a special spin on it, such as the unreliable narrator. Pain & Gain goes the extra mile with having five or six unreliable narrators! The main and side characters will take turns telling certain parts of the story, with Lugo and Dubois picking up most of the work. You'd think it wouldn't work, having too many voices gum up the narrative, but, strangely, it adds to the story. Many times you'll get two or three different takes on the same situation, each character adding their own take or their own personality. Dubois sounds tired and reluctant to tell this sad tale, while Lugo is ever excited that he'll get another chance to be a doer.
And then there's the ending which – well I'm not going to spoil it, but we'll just put a little check there for meeting the criteria for bittersweet-at-best noir endings.
So yeah. Michael Bay just made a noir film. A glittery, flashy, explode-y, violent, funny, crazy, 90's-esque noir film. And a really good noir movie, at that! I guess I should say something quick to actually review the movie, huh? It's funny in how ridiculous and depraved people can be; everyone acts the hell out of their parts, especially The Rock and Marky Mark, and I really enjoy the soundtrack and score. It does feel long at 130 minutes, and I don't really have anything bad to say about diversity in race and gender. So yeah, good movie, good noir, go see it.
- • THE GOOD: It's a noir! Great soundtrack, great acting, good action, funny, crazy story, multiple unreliable narrators, some nice and experimental camerawork.
- • THE BAD: Feels long and can drag a bit, very violent, is a Michael Bay movie.
- • THE VERDICT: $$$$ It's great! Go see it! You might be turned off by the initial Michael Bay-ness, but I can assure you, it is actually a good Michael Bay film. Finally.
- • MOVIES LIKE IT: Bad Boys 2, 5 Against the House, The Wrestler, Gun Crazy
- • ONE-SCENE METAPHOR: When Lugo is explaining a plan to kidnap Kershaw, first Paul has a little narration about how smart Lugo is, then Adrian has a narration about how Lugo doesn't know what the hell he's talking about, yet Adrian doesn't care. These guys are incredibly out of their league and no good can come from any of this.