Pain & Gain (2013)
"Pain & Gain" is as good a place as any for Videodrone to begin because anyone who knows me knows my shameless championing of the movies' two stars: Mark Wahlberg and The Rock. I've been right there with them in my mind, fists pumping, when they knock it out of the park, and found ways to rationalize most of the total duds they've dropped to people that never gave a shit in the first place.
It seems like I've been making excuses for my dudes more and more recently though, with Wahlberg going back to the "one last job" genre well in "Contraband," and "Broken City," the latter of which I'm not sure anyone actually saw. I will say that Wahlberg allowed me to get over my dislike of Seth Macfarlane and genuinely enjoy "Ted," but I was ready for some more of the manic, unhinged Wahlberg (Alright I guess now is a good time to say that "Boogie Nights" is my favorite movie - so now you know what I mean).
As for The Rock...man. It's frustrating because I can't expect a lot out of him as an actor, yet growing up an obsessive wrestling fan I'm too aware of what he is capable of just off sheer personality. Everyone knows the gist of his acting career's trajectory: Action movies both good ("Walking Tall," "The Rundown") and not so good ("Doom"), and money-grabbing ventures into Disney territory ("The Tooth Fairy"). The Rock's recently been mixing it up in action flicks again, but efforts like "Snitch" and "Faster" were either middling, pointless, or both. He took a step in the right direction and was arguably the best part of "Fast Five," the type of batshit movie he should be in, but his character was too stern and wooden - the physicality was there, but his personality was totally buried/muted.
With all this in mind, "Pain & Gain" was a perfect opportunity for both Wahlberg and The Rock to go off the rails in the best of ways. As actors, they needed to shake things up again and the actual movie needed them to as well if it was ever going to actually work. I don't like doing the whole synopsis thing so I'll be quick - Mark Wahlberg is Daniel Lugo, a personal trainer and bro-idealist who, after getting to know a very wealthy client named Victor (Tony Shaloub), hatches a plan to kidnap and torture him into signing over all of his assets (money, house, boats, everything) - and it's all ok, because this client also happens to be a gigantic asshole, and Lugo is a nice guy who "just wants what everyone else has, nothing more. And if I can also make the world a better place (by taking it from someone who abuses it), that's a good thing." Lugo recruits fellow muscle head Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and recently paroled Paul (The Rock) and they successfully kidnap Victor, keeping him chained up and tortured in a warehouse of some sort - and though it's not pretty, the plan actually works and the three become rich.
There are essentially two movies within "Pain & Gain:" First is meeting the characters and understanding their motives before they kidnap and torture Victor. This is a Michael Bay film, so the emotional weight here is somewhere between light and non-existent, just the way it should be. Bay still surprises though, because the second movie comes after the gang gets their money and assumes they've gotten away with it all. Because the movie begins like any other dumb, loud movie that really aims for laughs, the sequence of events that occur once things start falling apart in the second half is strikingly dark and violent in contrast - yet Bay never takes it too seriously, or seriously at all, which was the perfect choice. While the stakes get higher and the blood starts running, the batshit tone never changes, creating a surprisingly surreal effect that other action flicks couldn't pull off so easily. There's a message somewhere in "Pain & Gain," but it's so much more fun to just watch stupid characters go through the thrill of executing the perfect crime to inevitably fucking everything up, all in sunny Miami with Lamborghinis, cocaine, and strippers on the screen while "Gangsta's Paradise" plays.
So what about the two lead's performances that I went on way too long about being so crucial for themselves and the movie? I'm glad to report Wahlberg and The Rock were essentially perfect. Honestly, if their roles were played by any other actors this movie would easily have come across as extremely stupid and even trying too hard and falling flat. The reason it works is because they are the best applications of the best features of each lead's acting that we are already familiar with - the things Wahlberg and The Rock do the best are turned all the way up, and there's nothing taken away or forced on either of them. Wahlberg has always been at his best mixing up the everyman/underdog with frenetic, manic obsession. His motives are simple enough, he's tired of being one of the have-nots, and is convinced he's doing the right thing and is good-natured even as he disposes bodies in oil drums, and he never lets up. I was thrilled to see "Pain & Gain" feature Wahlberg in the same mode as my favorite deleted scene from "Boogie Nights":
As for The Rock, "Pain & Gain" is easily his best performance to date. By a mile. Like, he's the best part of the movie, as he should be. Michael Bay must like The Rock as much as I do because he used him in all the best ways possible - we see each of his best tools, used (finally) in some refreshing new ways. First of all, it's next to impossible to disassociate The Rock with whatever character he is playing, but this is his first performance where "Professional Wrestler THE ROCK" wasn't practically stamped on his forehead. He's a big muscular dude amongst other big muscular dudes and he's the most emotionally conflicted character in a movie that has very little time to waste on emotion. The Rock's a naturally funny person, and it's evident that he's gotten past his growing pains and can now translate his comedic timing and subtlety onto the big screen. As Paul, we first see a soft spoken, newly sober man of faith still working on using his gift of ass beating for good, not evil. This would serve as the kind of one sided role that The Rock might play in another comedy, but in "Pain & Gain" Paul falls back into the lifestyle of raging excess that originally landed him in prison and oh, is it fuckin' glorious.
It's been maddening to see The Rock wasted in the past as a one dimensional action goon stripped of his personality, to see him do something incredibly badass but only because he had to in order to make things right or teach some lesson. I want to see The Rock do drugs, make really bad decisions for once, and be freakin' human, and that's what I got in this movie. When Paul starts spiraling out of control, the best scenes of the movie happen, and that's no coincidence. His character is all over the place and it's a perfect mess: there's a sequence in which he botches a coke fueled solo bank robbery, flees on foot and through the water, ending up paranoid and jacked up in the middle of his friend's wedding carrying a severed body part he lost in the shootout that stood out as my favorite part of the movie, and essentially "Pain & Gain" in a nutshell: Fast, Loud, Violent, Hilarious, Absurd, The Rock.