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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.

 

Snitch (2013)

Snitch

So, in Snitch (2013), we have John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), the model Dad. He’s one of these great caring people who, when he sees a new employee working late, stops to help move sacks around. His only mistake in life so far has been to get divorced and give the custody of his son, Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron), to his ex, Sylvie Collins (Melina Kanakaredes). For whatever reason, his son has had nothing to do with his father. This lack of a father’s guiding hand leads to an act of extreme stupidity in which he agrees to hold a small mountain of pills for a friend. Needless to say, this is a set-up and the DEA swoop as soon as the drugs are through the door. This paragon of stupidity is now looking at a minimum of ten year’s jail time. America has some really weird laws which have mandatory sentences based on the quantity of drugs held, but there’s chance for a reduction in that sentence if the accused co-operates with the authorities to ensnare others higher up in the distribution chain. Given the potential to take eight years off his sentence, the dimwit claims he cannot become a snitch. In the jail visiting telephone chat, we get all the guilt-tripping. If only I’d been a better Dad and had you in my life. I cared too much about my business to push the issue of joint custody. If I’d been a better son and not hated you for going off to live in a big house and leave Mom and me in a rundown neighbourhood. . . Yawn!

Faced with this spectacularly unfair law, superDad decides to volunteer his own services as a snitch in his son’s place. Not surprisingly, this is not how the law is supposed to work. Bending the rules requires the approval of DA Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon). Law officials tasked with the enforcement of these laws are, by definition, not bleeding hearts. So Keeghan’s response is entirely rational. If superDad comes up with an airtight arrest of someone with intent to distribute not less than half-a-kilo of coke, his son gets remission. But the risk is all his. Obviously he’s not a trained police officer and the idea of a naive do-gooder going undercover to infiltrate a drug distribution cartel is a high-risk activity even at the best of times. Nevertheless, for the love of his son, he decides to explore options. As the boss of a construction company, he employs ex-cons. Perhaps someone can point him in the right direction.

Dwayne Johnson not looking so tough

Dwayne Johnson not looking so tough

Right so let’s pause here. Dimwit son agreed to break the law and got busted. Great, so he’s a criminal. He refuses to entrap any of his friends. Great, so he’s got a vague grasp of morality and feels he should not roll on someone he thinks is innocent just to shave years off his sentence. So even though superDad has remarried and has a new child to love, he decides he will act as the snitch. But to achieve the aim of excusing his criminal son, he has to get one or more ex-cons to give up their contacts or involve themselves in further criminal activity and risk jail. For the ex-cons superDad involves, this is not the same as acting as a paid informer for the police. SuperDad is inciting these ex-criminals to become criminals again. He starts a “partnership” with Daniel James (Jon Bernthal) who is married and trying to rebuild his life in difficult circumstances. Just talking to him is a conspiracy and exposes this man to the risk of jail. Yet this conversation gets our hero as far as Malik (Michael K. Williams). The DA is moved to offer a reduction to one year if superDad can bring him in. A concerned DEA officer Cooper (Barry Pepper) sets superDad up with a wire and sits in the background as an advisor. Later he warns superDad about the DA. She can be a little forgetful on the detail of the deals she makes. So our hero ends up being introduced to Juan Carlos “El Topa” Pintera (Benjamin Bratt) and, after a set-piece chase, we get to the end.

Susan Sarandon and Barry Pepper considering their options

Susan Sarandon and Barry Pepper considering their options

In a way this is the film in which the ex-wrestler gets to show whether he can act. Interestingly he may be physically the biggest man in the room on several occasions, but he’s not there to fight. Playing against type, he’s there to look scared but determined. There’s some plausibility to his story that life in the construction industry can’t pay the bills in these difficult economic times. Whether that would force a respectable businessman to start transporting wholesale quantities of drugs is another matter. Frankly I found the first half of the film to be deadly dull. I’m not doubting the narrative necessity of each element of the story as shown, but the pace is leaden. Even when we get on to the road in his truck, it’s not that much better. It’s a long drive. When the action does come, it somehow failed to engage my interest. It’s not that the situations are without tension. I just didn’t care whether this hero succeeded. Nothing in the set-up seems to justify any of this. I’m not denying this is a terrible law and our hero is being ruthlessly exploited by a DA with a political agenda, but our hero is doing all this for a worthless son. I might have had more sympathy if our hero had been forced into this because he was a victim. But none of this life-and-death extravagance is credible.

The ultimate outcome is also a real pain. The hero and his ex-wife are the happiest ex-couple I’ve ever seen, while our hero has effectively destroyed his new family’s life as his business is gone and they must go into witness protection. I really don’t think that’s going to be a long-term marriage. There’s actually a good story here waiting to be told. If the DA and the undercover cop had sat down with our hero to plan an operation, we could have built up a tense drama. As it is, the parts created for Susan Sarandon and Barry Peeper are woefully underwritten. This would also have put proper legal protection in place for Jon Bernthal as the man seduced back to his criminal ways. The longer term criminals are classic stereotypes and boringly predictable. Not even the acting of Dwayne Johnson can save the film because he’s been given silly things to say and do. Overall, Snitch is a ghastly tragedy of everyone on the production side missing opportunities to make a good film.

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