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Pain and Gain (2013)

pain and gain

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.

Anthony Mackie, Dwayne Johnson and Mark Wahlberg managing to cross the road

Anthony Mackie, Dwayne Johnson and Mark Wahlberg managing to cross the road

 

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.

Ed Harris looking cool and competent

Ed Harris looking cool and competent

 

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.

Tony Shalhoub thinking life is sweet

Tony Shalhoub thinking life is sweet

 

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.

 

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

March 3, 2011 1 comment

When you watch The Adjustment Bureau, there’s a big elephant in the room (particularly at the end) so we might as well get it out into the open from the beginning. Let’s think about the set-up. We have these “immortal” beings on Earth to keep us to the Plan. What Plan, you ask, noting the capital P? Well, the Chairman (who had another name in years gone by) has a Plan for everyone in the world. From time to time, we were allowed completely free will and we messed up. First there were the Dark Ages, so God took us back under His wing, and then, from 1910 onwards, we managed two world wars, a depression and. . . well, let’s just say the Cuban missile crisis was going to blow up the world, so the renamed Chairman decided enough was enough and put us back on the Plan.

Now, the good news is that we do still have free will. We can either go with the Plan or opt out knowing the dire consequences likely to follow from that choice. Think of it in explicitly Christian terms for a moment. There’s always a Final Judgment. It’s unavoidable when we die. If we stay with God’s Plan, we get Heaven. The Other Place is waiting for those who decided they would rather go their own way.

I confess to despairing of Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader because it took a very simple Christian message and overelaborated to the point where the message was confused, if not, lost. This has a more straightforward approach and, without putting up a signboard saying, “Here be the Christian message” manages to speak to those of a Christian persuasion. For those of you like me who are atheists, it’s still a good film. Everyone can take heart from the idea that, if you fight hard enough for the things that are important to you, you will often force others to bend and allow you to realise your dreams and ambitions.

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt's first meeting

The Adjustment Bureau is a delightful romance framed as a fantasy. For once, I am going to stand up and applaud the leading actors. In the majority of films, you get two randomly matched stars thrown together on screen and told they must have chemistry. In some cases, it’s obvious they don’t even like each other. In the remainder, you can see them acting smouldering passion with the enthusiasm of a guttering candle. Here Matt Damon is remarkably likeable and engaging from the first moment he appears. You really could see him as a successful politician with a charisma the size of New York. Emily Blunt is also wonderfully quirky in a distinctly British way. I’m hopeful the American audience will appreciate quite how nuanced the performance is. The result is instant chemistry. The script calls for them to feel attracted to each other from first sight and everyone will get that. In fact, I would go so far as to say that their performances as a couple lift this film from the ordinary to a very different level.

The Team tries an appeal to reason

The rest of the cast are all pleasingly competent with Anthony Mackie troubled by his conscience, John Slattery feeling frustrated and out of his depth, and Terence Stamp cleverly underplaying the role of Thomson, The Hammer. It’s also amusing to play catch the walk-ons with Michael Bloomberg and one or two others allowed fleeting moments on screen.

But my biggest round of applause goes to George Nolfi who is credited with both the direction and the screenplay (based on the short story “Adjustment Team” by Philip K. Dick). From Bladerunner in 1982 onwards, there’s been a gold rush to P. K. Dick for script ideas. One or two have been remarkably successful. The majority have varied between the interesting and the dire. In a sense, this mirrors Dick’s work. I confess to being a completist, having managed to get firsts of everything he wrote. I therefore come to this film carrying the heavy burden of encyclopaedic knowledge. Dick was badly affected by his drug-taking habit and, at times, suffered paranoid delusions, many of which inform his writing. Thus, the “Adjustment Team” is rooted firmly in the paranoia of the Cold War with a realtor whose arrival at work is not delayed, so he gets to see the Team at work. He’s then whisked upstairs to meet with the Old Man who explains the grander political purpose behind the adjustments. Nolfi’s decision to restructure the whole story into a modern parable about free will and determinism is immensely satisfying. The original is, to put it mildly, slight. This film is not only genuinely entertaining as a romance, but also pleasingly provocative in persuading even hard-bitten cynics like me to consider the possibility that good things may come to those who struggle against Fate.

Although I might nitpick one or two scenes and say they went on too long or there were problems, this would miss the point. It’s wisdom with the benefit of hindsight. As it stands, the film picks you up and carries you along to the end without time to think. It follows its own logic, particularly as to ripple effects when the Team are monitoring probabilities in realtime. I unhesitatingly recommend this to everyone who enjoys quietly thoughtful drama. There are no car chases or explosions — although people do run around a little — with everything being resolved with a great sense of style and rationality. The only other comment I would make is that I was reminded of a greatly underrated science fiction drama series called The Lost Room where doors can take you to where you want to go. On television, you use a key. On the big screen, you need a trilby for the same trick. As a final thought, don’t be taken in by the marketing hype claiming this is, “Bourne meets Inception”. In fact, The Adjustment Bureau is not a thriller with people shooting each other, nor is it set as a dream. See the film for what it is and not because of some hack sloganeering.

This film has been shortlisted for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation 2011.

 

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