Pain and Gain (2013)
Pain and Gain (2013) takes us back to 1995 in Miami-Dade and long before Lieutenant Horatio Caine made this a safe place to live. That means people like Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) roam free to work their mischief (as the film repeatedly tells us, this is based on a true story). Such men may enhance their bodies through hard work lifting weights and the occasional injection of steroids, but big muscles on the outside do not make big brains on the inside. The set-up shows us a man on the run from the police who obviously had a get-rich-quick scheme that went wrong. When we move back six months in time and hear his sales pitch for what makes America so great, we know why it went wrong. This body-building narcissist lives in a fantasy land where his heroes are drawn from the cinema and the associated mythology of successful criminals. He watches a lot of movies so has an infallible plan to kidnap Victor Kershsaw (Tony Shalhoub). To make this plan work, he recruits Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) who has a veneer of Christian values spread over the stinking pile of moral weakness underneath, and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) whose excessive investment in steroids has left him seriously challenged in the sex department.
From this brief introduction, you will understand this is probably intended as a comedy and may well have pretensions to social commentary. When I mention the director is Michael Bay you can express surprise at the lack of anything SFnal or supernatural. We even get to the end without any explosions (although there’s a reasonable amount of violence if that’s what gets you through the door of the cinema). It’s actually impressive to see a man who has made his money with big screen action films make something on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, with an idea this dumb, he should have been a don’ter not a doer.
To be honest, I don’t usually go to American comedies (assuming that’s what this is). As my age has advanced, I’ve been finding the cultural gap on transatlantic humour harder to cross. To say that my decision to watch this is an example of optimism prevailing over intelligence is therefore an understatement. After sitting through it, the question I’m left with is why we’re supposed to think kidnapping, robbery, and attempting to and actually murdering people is funny. Let’s pause for a moment and go back to Ruthless People (1986) in which two less than competent criminals kidnap Bette Midler to extort money from Danny DeVito. I recall this as mildly amusing and, at ninety-three minutes, it knew exactly how long a joke can be spun out before it loses its edge. At 129 minutes, this pile of amoral entertainment makes the case that it’s no big deal to rob Victor Kershaw because he’s a cruel and unsympathetic man. The police have no interest in his story. None of his neighbours missed seeing him around. His employees are relieved he no longer comes in to abuse them. Only retired private detective Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) even vaguely believes Victor’s claims and, in the first instance, it’s only because he’s so bored, he will seize any excuse to get out of the house.
As to our “heroes”, they think they’re home free after their first team crime. Adrian Doorbal gets married — the drugs to restore his erections are now affordable, Daniel Lugo becomes a pillar of the local neighborhood watch, and Paul Doyle rediscovers cocaine and the high that comes from having cops shoot at you after a failed robbery. Then when the fact of one-man pursuit penetrates their thick heads, they decide to double down. Not for them the pussy way of running away. They’ll do it again. Hell, yeh! Well, we all know how that’s going to go. By this time, I’m beyond despair. The divergence from the plan proves significant and the jokes (if that’s what they’re intended to be) get progressively more sick — chainsaws and BBQs come into play. Frankly, I see nothing even remotely funny about any of this. To dignify it as “dark comedy” or a social commentary would be absurd. Are we really supposed to accept the ideal route to realising the American dream is through crime? I know there have been some spectacular examples of fraudsters hitting it rich and accept that, in a country where being rich excuses many minor and some major faults, it’s possible to tell an entertaining story about such people. But no-one here looks good (apart from the retired detective and his wife). It doesn’t matter whether it’s the girl on the complaints desk at a hardware store or the wealthy neighbours Daniel Lugo inherits, everyone is shown as massively indifferent to notions of social responsibility at best or actively into lust, drugs and anything else sinful or criminal they think they can get away with. What we see is a society in decline.
Under normal circumstances, I might look the other way. It’s just another of these offensive films about life in the decadent West. But here we’re repeatedly told this is based on real-world events: the exploits of the Sun Gym Gang in the 1990s as told by Pete Collins. So taking this as a true story of three bodybuilders and the incredible failures of the Metro-Dade police force, I’m left with one final question. Where’s the film-makers’ disapproval of these idiotically dangerous criminals and of the dangerously incompetent police officers? I might have come away with a better opinion of this film if I’d felt the director and scriptwriters were holding these people up as exemplars of what not to do. Instead we have deranged heroes in what’s intended to be a comedy running rings around brain dead police officers. We’re obviously intended to laugh at their pathetic efforts to kill Victor Kershaw. What message is that sending to the audience? When they later accidentally kill people, we’re intended to laugh at their efforts to dispose of the bodies. I find this implicit approval of their actions to be profoundly offensive. Matching the film, the fact that the real-world Daniel Lugo has still not been executed is a testament to the pathetic way the American justice system works. If you have the death penalty and you have a deserving candidate, you dismiss the appeals and carry out the sentence. If you don’t, what’s the point of having capital punishment? What message is this sending to other potential kidnappers and killers? Even if you do get caught, America can’t kill people when they deserve to die. At every level, both as fiction and as a reference to real-world events, Pain and Gain is not just film with a moral vacuum at its core. From the fact of its production and the way in which it’s marketed, we’re being inviting to see this story of out-of-control predators as entertaining. The failure of the film-makers to take a moral stance against the events being shown makes this worse than Arbitrage and I thought that was bad.