Silver Screen: Pain and Gain ***
Here’s an uncool thing to say: The Rock is a really good actor.
Granted, he’s not nipping at Daniel Day-Lewis’s self-cobbled heels or threatening to usurp Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks’s title as America’s most beloved actor, but he’s also been too good in too many movies to write him off with the backhanded compliment “well-cast.”
While his hulking physique makes it near impossible for him to convincingly play an everyman, he uses his size and comic-book looks to his advantage, playing his imposing figure against an expressive mug and some surprisingly subtle comic gestures. He’s got killer timing and, what’s more, when the going gets dramatic, he can keep pace with plenty of the pansy-ass thespians who get more props for lesser work.
Call him the Rock, or, as he’d probably prefer, call him Dwayne Johnson, but by either name the man can carry a film. The trouble is, he’s spent the better part of his career being the standout element in otherwise mediocre movies: The Mummy spinoffs, Fast and Furious sequels, and now G.I. Joe. The only thing separating Johnson from action movie greatness is the lack of a great director. He needs a Richard Donner or a James Cameron or at least a John McTiernan who can employ that power and charisma in a project that’s got something going for it other than just the star’s performance-- a Terminator or a Die Hard or a Lethal Weapon-- that makes full use of his abilities.
For now Johnson will have to settle for Michael Bay, who has made a good action movie or two (Bad Boys and, appropriately enough, The Rock), but who’s better known on this side of the millennial divide for his overembelished, hyper-stylized films that assault viewers with a nonsensical barrage of frantically paced flashing lights and loud noises.
Bay is attempting his version of a small passion project with Pain and Gain, a black-humored, action-tinged crime story about a dumb caper gone horribly wrong. It’s based on the bizarre true tale of the Sun Gym Gang, led by Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a meathead with delusions of grandeur. A self-help seminar from a low-rent huckster (Ken Jeong) prompts him to take action and make his dreams come true. Daniel’s big idea is to kidnap one of his rich clients and force them to sign over their own wealth as ransom. To hatch the scheme he teams up with two fellow gym rats, born-again ex-con Paul Doyle (Johnson) and the more timid Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), who needs the cash for corrective procedures to rewire his steroid-ravaged junk.
The dimwitted trio kidnaps the shifty owner of a Schlotzsky’s deli (Tony Shalhoub), but they have a tough time extracting the money, and an even tougher time trying to figure out what to do with him afterward. Their criminal syndicate begins to crumble almost immediately, while a flinty old detective (Ed Harris) with a nagging curiosity and a loathing of retirement begins an informal investigation.
Only by Michael Bay standards could something like this be considered a small, niche movie. Perhaps it’s not entirely coincidence that Pain and Gain plays like a Coen brothers film on steroids. Even when he’s aiming for quirky, Bay seems irresistibly drawn to the hyperbolic pleasures of juvenile fantasy: bottle-blond beach babes with breast implants, foreign cars shiny like candy apples, shimmering swimming pools studded with bronze skin stretched over hardbodies. It’s the cartoonish sexuality of biker magazines and backyard wrestling, where the rampant machismo keeps threatening to tip into homoeroticism before defiantly reiterating at full volume its arrow-straightness.
Though it’s difficult at times to tell when Bay is winking and when he’s trying to be serious, his frenzied style, the over-the-top story, and the body-builder’s world of oblivious excess are a good match. Despite the constant protestations that this is in fact a true story-- a title card flashes across the screen at one point as a reminder-- the movie’s later twists and slapstick incidents seem embellished at best. But even if it goes overboard by its conclusion, for most of the way Pain and Gain is good fun.
Credit that to the synchronicity of style and (sort of) substance, but mainly to the performances of the lead actors. Wahlberg is never better than when he’s playing a dimwitted guy whose ambitions overmatch his mental capacity, and Mackie has a lot of range. But it’s our old pal Dwayne Johnson who steals the show as the movie’s scariest yet most sympathetic character. He’s at turns terrifying and hilarious, but he’s the center of attention every second he’s onscreen. It’s one of the best showcases of his talent yet. Here’s hoping he gets a better one.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.