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Both movies are about an incompetent, delusional and likable group of zealots. But where the Northern jihadists in Four Lions believe they are serving a higher ideological cause, the characters played by Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson are chasing their perverse version of the American dream.
Based on true crimes that took place in Florida back in the 90s, Pain & Gain is a broad, comedic version of that story that sees a trio of bodybuilders hatch a plan to kidnap a local millionaire Tony Shalhoub (TV’s Monk). Led by Wahlberg, they believe in an American Dream by which anyone who works hard deserves to get everything they want. And because they work out in the gym all the time, they reckon it’s about time they become instantly rich. And they apparently do — getting Shalhoub’s Jewish stereotype into signing over his entire fortune despite their increasing ineptitude.
Note: trailer contains strong language.
Structurally, the film is a bit of a mess: it could definitely afford to be tighter in the middle, where the characters seem to be spinning their wheels waiting for their comeuppance.
But you know what? It’s surprising how darkly funny this thing is.
We all know Wahlberg to be a genuine star with an ability to play almost any situation with hilarious sincerity: in last year’s Ted we even found out that he could be a terrific comic lead. But despite Marky Mark’s great work, the real revelation of the film is Dwayne Johnson.
It seems like every film The Rock appears in, he puts in a revelatory performance of some sort. He has a proven facility do straight 80s-style action in the Fast and Furious films; he can pull of serious drama roles like his turn in Snitch (where he played a worried father who goes to great extremes to protect his son); he can even do comedy if the role is written well enough.
After the robo-bashing excesses of three Transformers films, this $30 million movie is Michael Bay’s version of a ‘smaller, more personal’ picture. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be fast cars and a number of explosions. Bay even references a circular tracking shot of his from Bad Boys 2 to cut between two concurrent scenes in a house. As over-the-top macho comedies go, Pain & Gain almost hits the mark perfectly. Almost. The banter between Wahlberg and Johnson is as good, if not better than the dialogue in any number of Apatow-style comedies floating around these days.
You almost forget how funny his early blockbusters were. Sure, Armageddon and The Rock were on the dumb side, but they were awesome movies full of super-decent one-liners and great indie actors.
Let us not forget that Michael Bay was the man who turned Nicolas Cage into an action hero. He’s also the guy who invented the idea of Ben Affleck as a studio star less than a year after Good Will Hunting. He’s also the only reason we have any idea who Martin Lawrence is, so you can thank him for Big Momma’s House).
There must be something about the PG-13 rating of the Transformers films that caused Bay to enter the most mediocre (yet financially successful) period of his career. And with the fourth Transformers film currently in production, it looks as though Pain and Gain will be a blip of quality in the Bay filmography rather than a sign of positive change.
And that is a shame. It really is.
Pain and Gain is now in cinemas.