johnlink ranks PAIN & GAIN (2013)

Ahhh, Michael Bay. There are only so many movies out there left I have not seen of yours. I haven’t particularly liked any of the films you have directed since the turn of the 21st century. Coincidentally, that is when I graduated high school. On the other hand, I had heard that PAIN & GAIN was a callback to simpler days. I had some hopes for this one, albeit guarded hopes. So… does PAIN & GAIN work out?


I watched PAIN & GAIN (2013) on 1.25.14. It was my first viewing of the film.

There are two types of Michael Bay films. The first is the personal story. Even if it has a cast of dozens and a huge budget, this is the type of film about the fates of couple of people. or a small group of people. Into this category falls BAD BOYS, THE ROCK, BAD BOYS II, THE ISLAND (unless you consider the global implications of cloning), and PAIN & GAIN. The other type of film is the world or universe scoped story. This involves the fate of nations, the fate of the planet, or the fate of the universe. Into this category Bay enters ARMAGEDDON, PEARL HARBOR, and THE TRANSFORMERS series. Incidentally, his small scoped movies tend to be better received, though his large scope movies make more money (on average). One could quibble about THE ISLAND falling in the later category or PEARL HARBOR falling in the former. But before quibbling, just remember that no one ever spent too much time philosophizing about Michael Bay and return to your day.

PAIN & GAIN was conceptualized as a return to the very thing that made Bay famous. A modest budget, a couple of stars, a narrowly focused story, R Rated action. There are major differences between BAD BOYS and PAIN & GAIN beginning with the fact that our protagonists in the earlier film are moral police officers and the protagonists in the latter film are murderous criminals. Yet, at its heart, these are similarly conceived films.

PAIN & GAIN is based on a true story. It tells the tale of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and his two criminal buddies, Paul (The Rock, er, ahem, Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian (Anthony Mackie). Lugo conceives of a plan to kidnap a rich dude who works out the gym the three guys all work at. This mark is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), an arrogant bastard (the type of person, not the beer) who has money to throw around. In the kidnapping, Kershaw recognizes Lugo based on his cologne. The plan to keep him and let him go becomes something different. After taking all his money, Lugo figures that Kershaw has to die. This attempt doesn’t go as planned, and Kershaw makes it through. He hires a private detective Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) who takes the case after the police find the story too absurd to believe.

Now rich, the boys fumble around and try to fit in with a new lifestyle. Paul is not successful in this endeavor, and soon the team realizes they need more. They plan a second job with Ed now on their tail.

The story puts the three guys as the focus and the heroes. We hear their voice overs, we learn about them, we are meant to sympathize with them. Really though, these should be unlikable dudes. Bay keeps us… at bay (crap)… by casting intensely likable guys and having them do goofy and stupid things. Meanwhile, Shalhoub plays Kershaw as a total prick, making it all okay. Really, though, these three criminals are dumb, roided up dunces. They say the wrong words, their plans are daft, their instincts are all wrong.


The Rock and Mackie are particularly likable and strong in this movie. This is one of Johnson’s best roles, and he milks it for every drop. Wahlberg is fine in his alpha dog spot. Shalhoub brings piss and vinegar to the role and manages to become a kidnapping victim we don’t like (more on that in a minute). Harris mostly walks around like he can’t believe he is in this movie. A supporting role by comedian Rebel Wilson is decent. A supporting role by comedian Rob Corddry is wasted. A supporting role by comedian Ken Jeong is annoying. This is a Michael Bay movie, so Peter Stormare shows up, of course, this time as a penis doctor. Overall, the acting in this film works on a STARSHIP TROOPERS level. But, and this is funny to say, PAIN & GAIN is not nearly as sophisticated a satire as STARSHIP TROOPERS.

Bay includes some theme about patriotism, but go ahead and try and figure out what he is trying to say about it. Taking place in 1995, Lugo talks about being in shape as a national responsibility. Steroids are merely the tools to a better patriot. American flags fly everywhere, and not just behind our criminals. The cops on the hunt for them give a speech in front of a giant flag like this is the opening of PATTON. Ed DuBois talks about patriotism and America and stuff. There is no real coherent theme. Bay puts these guys up on a pedestal, even if it is only to make fun of them. But by trying to turn them into ‘aw shucks’ funny guys, he mutes any attempt at a coherent mocking of the roid rage era. Bay puts the pieces in there, one guy is looking at a Barry Bonds article in a magazine, pre-roids (I assume), when he was a 50-50 guy for the Giants. What’s the point of that? Is that a cute wink at the audience about steroids? Is it a commentary on how Bonds had to take steroids to keep up with the rest of America? Who knows. I’m not sure Bay does. He just sticks an American flag behind someone and hopes it amounts to ‘theme’.

But that has never been his strong suit anyway. The action and the camerawork, here, flows well. This is immensely easy to watch. Call him what you will, but Michael Bay is absolutely an auteur director in the sense that we KNOW when we’re watching his work. Lugo’s apartment looks like the underbelly of the clones’ world in THE ISLAND. The affluent households look like the ones in BAD BOYS. The action sequences glisten and pop like the car chase in THE ROCK. The man knows how to shoot action. He comes from a music video mentality which leads to an edit every second and a half, but it also allows his unique expositional opening flow like water. The first act of this movie is surprisingly long from a normal narrative standpoint, but Bay resets and reintroduces characters with such smooth manipulation that we hardly notice. For all Bay’s lack of thematic sophistication, he sure knows how to line up a shot and edit it together.

How much of a pass you are willing to give PAIN & GAIN much depends on how much you care about the ‘based on a true story’ conceit. With all that’s been discussed above, this movie provides easy entertainment and a pleasingly funny experience. But Bay got this story from some magazine articles by Pete Collins, and he wants to make sure you know it. The poster has a sprawling ‘based on a true story’. The narrator tells us that “unfortunately” this is based on a true story. Most interestingly, late in the film, The Rock is doing something amazingly eccentric and legitimately insane. A title card pops on the screen which, literally, says “Still a True Story”. In the end credits we see all of the real people who the actors portrayed.


Only, life wasn’t quite that way. The real criminals were more mastermind than goof. Lugo had a health insurance racket going long before he got in the kidnapping business. The real kidnaped victim was held for a month and subjected to torture (though it remained true that the police did not believe him). The moment Bay chooses to reveal as “Still a True Story” never actually happened. In fact, the character The Rock plays is an amalgamation of three people. So, instead of showing one of those three people, the end credits show the mug shot of an actor that Bay hired to play a guy that was supposed to be the real life person The Rock played, only he never actually existed. So we can assume that Michael Bay doesn’t care for the truth and that is his prerogative. But what’s the point of pushing the true story thing here, and then being deceptive about the truth? There is nothing inherently wrong in that. Filmmakers have creative license. But, personally, when I see a true story I either don’t care or I find it is interesting enough to research. When the latter happens and I discover that the true story is nothing like the movie I just accept that as Hollywood. But there is something so deceptive, and which assumes idiocy in your audience, when you repeatedly work to point out how true a story is when it really isn’t how it went down. The filmmakers never consulted the actual victim, who was (understandably) offended that his kidnappers were portrayed as sympathetic victims of circumstance.

Does any of that matter? It’s hard to say. I have less respect for the film because I know that. My film score below considers thematic content as well as pure filmmaking ability. Knowing the extent Bay went to in order to pass this off as true is annoying. Yet, I suppose, we can just come back to the fact that this is just a Michael Bay action film that we have now spent 1500 words (and counting) trying to figure out.

Sometimes, when it comes to entertainment in movies, it is better to not know the truth.



Sorry, but I am knocking a point off for the insistence of Bay’s ‘true story’ claim. I don’t know why this bothers me so much…



~ by johnlink00 on January 26, 2014.

6 Responses to “johnlink ranks PAIN & GAIN (2013)”

  1. Good review.

    I didn’t like this enough to research its veracity, but your account makes me like it even less. So. Thanks for the edu-ma-cation. 🙂

  2. Haha, that’s what I’m here for!
    If Bay hadn’t INSISTED that it was a true story I never would have looked into it. Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

  3. Good review John. Bay’s sense of humor is weird and I do have to say that he definitely didn’t do everything in the right taste here. However, I did have fun with this movie and rather enjoyed it, especially when it was just being its bat-shit crazy self. Which, more than often, took up the whole majority of the film’s run-time.

    • Right. And that is why it still gets a high ‘movie’ score from me for entertainment. I enjoyed it. When I think back on it, I’m not sure I appreciate it.

  4. Great review of a not at all great film. Interesting info re the departures from fact. In most cases, I don’t mind filmmakers taking creative licence, which obviously is a necessity. But I have issues with what you have outlined above – matching up The Rock with a mug shot of someone who did not exist and flashing that title card at that particular point, are both quite deceptive.

    • Yeah, I just don’t get the motivation for making those choices. But then Bay isn’t usually noted for rational intelligence. Thanks for the compliment!

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