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The year is 1994. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is an ambitious bodybuilder and personal trainer. After attending a motivational seminar, Lugo decides he deserves a bigger part of the American Dream and constructs a plan to extort millions of dollars from one of his clients, a blowhard with possible criminal connections named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Unable to kidnap and hold Kershaw on his own, Lugo recruits fellow trainer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and a cocaine-addicted, born-again ex-con named Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson).

Pain & Gain
Michael Bay might be the most influential filmmaker to have never made a good movie. In fact, his best movie, The Rock, is also his least distinctive and the more he defined himself as a significant stylist, the further he crept into a position as one of the leading contributors to the downfall of American culture. Bay’s defenders continue to assure me that his special brand of impeccably processed trash is better served by the more permissive boundaries of the R-rating and, though I agree that his grotesque sensibilities don’t work as well with ‘family-friendly’ limitations, I’ve never been able to stomach his comedies. Despite recommendations from sources as reputable as Edgar Wright, it took me three sittings to make it through Bad Boys II. But I can’t deny that Bay is an accomplished, cough, ‘visual artist’ and that, given the right subject matter, he could probably achieve something authentically great.

Before agreeing to make yet another Transformers movie, Bay decided to make a smaller, more personal picture to remind us that he’s capable of more than only jumbled, bloated, and misogynistic giant robot movies (note: Bay had already tried and failed to produce a typical prestige picture when he made Pearl Harbor). Like a textbook sociopath doing his best impression of a normal, human movie director, Bay followed the essential ‘passion project’ formula to the best of his abilities – he chose a character-driven true story. However, because he’s Michael Bay, he chose the true story of image-obsessed, Miami-based body-builders that kidnapped and murdered people for money. That story, Pain & Gain, is so perfectly suited for Bay that it wouldn’t be surprising to learn he’d somehow personally participated in the original events that screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely based the film upon (for the record: he did not). Pain & Gain is characterized by shallow characters and misanthropic, violent behavior. It’s immoral, antisocial, and, at times, irresponsibly cruel. In other words – it is exactly what we should expect from an unbridled, R-rated, Michael Bay passion project. Hell, it even takes place around the time he was rising to prominence as one of Hollywood’s go-to manufacturers of blockbuster entertainment (he was possibly even filming Bad Boys in Miami while the events of Pain & Gain were occurring).

Pain & Gain
Bay shows considerable intuition by not playing Pain & Gain as a straight crime flick, but a semi-spoof of the genre. The film is at its best when it is viciously satirizing the insanity of the situation and making fun of the characters through the prism of their own delusional perspectives. Bay doesn’t change his usual aesthetic and his absurd visual world is a perfect representation of Lugo’s version of the American Capitalist’s dream and these neon-baked images turn perfectly nightmarish as that dream is tarnished by violence. The director’s awkward and juvenile (not to mention homophobic and misogynistic) sense of humor is still dubious, but it isn’t out-of-place with the subject matter and Markus & McFeely (who, by the way, are also known for their family-friendly Narnia, Captain America, and Thor sequel scripts) include plenty of clever gags to neutralize the director’s more problematic tastes – though, I suppose, the funniest stuff is still indicative of the real story (I’ve heard actual quotes from the criminal interviews were used). Like every movie Bay has ever made, Pain & Gain is overlong (it runs out of steam almost exactly halfway through), but it certainly flows quickly; at times so quickly that it’s difficult to follow. But the over-use of flashbacks and shifts in narration source actually fits the story’s messy aesthetic and the quick deviations into the characters’ personal lives are surprisingly efficient storytelling devices (Doorbal’s penis issues tell us almost everything we need to know about him and his motivations).

Mark Wahlberg has proven himself as a ‘director’s actor.’ He can be great, but it seems to depend entirely upon who he’s working with and if that person is capable of harnessing his talents. It’s no mistake that his best performances have been in Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and David O. Russell movies. Bay doesn’t pull a Departed or Fighter-level performance out of the guy, but certainly knows how to play to Wahlberg’s strengths as a pop culture icon. The same goes for Dwayne Johnson, though ‘The Rock’s’ performance is so strong it honestly might deserve a little Oscar recognition. I’m serious – he’s amazing. It helps that Paul Doyle is the sweet-natured foil to Luco’s relentless self-centeredness, but simple likeability wouldn’t have been enough put a role in a Michael Bay film over into an Oscar-calibre category. Anthony Mackie’s performance is a bit limited by his use in a supportive capacity, but he still manages to steal a couple of scenes with a well-placed line of quirky dialogue. The rest of the cast, including Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson, and Ed Harris, is pretty great as well, though, if there’s one thing Michael Bay can do as well as blow stuff up, it’s putting together a good ensemble.

Pain & Gain

Video


According to specs, Pain & Gain was shot using a series of styles and formats, including Red Epic, Canon, and Phantom digital HD formats and traditional 35mm. This 2.40:1, 1080p transfer makes good use of the occasionally chaotic multimedia approach, reveling in hyper-vibrant hues and super-saturated white levels. There’s nothing natural about this transfer. Bay and cinematographer Ben Seresin’s palette is a delightfully unreal representation of mid-‘90s Miami, Florida. The sky is a constant, perfect baby blue, the sun is a perfect orange, the vegetation is a perfect green, the skin tones are perfect bronze, and the cars are perfectly cherry red. All of these perfect colours are perfectly vivid. Details are similarly unreal. Some of the finer background textures are blown-out by the whites and crushed by the blacks, but the huge boost in contrast ends up amplifying just as many of the finer foreground textures. Though eerily consistent, the colour patterns are also pretty complex throughout the film and sit beside each other without many bleeding effects or edge haloes. The use of multiple formats shows in the disparity of noise/grain levels and these variances tend to define the tonal imagery of the entire film. Much of the film takes place under the almost acidic whites of the Miami sun, which creates clean, crisp images or under the bluish glow of fluorescent lights, which creates smoother and more complex hue gradations. When Bay aims for a grittier look during some of the darker scenes, the gradations become more jagged and there are noticeable uptakes in digital noise levels. This includes some cross-colouration effects, but there are no notable issues with macroblocking or other compression artefacts.

Pain & Gain

Audio


Paramount has set Pain & Gain up with a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack that doesn’t disappoint on the big and freakin’ loud front. Even when he’s not dealing with robot cars, Michael Bay is a fan of busy, hyperactive soundtracks. There’s a very stylized little car crash that leads to a minor explosion and some punchy shootouts as plans go south for our heroes, but the film is generally not action-oriented, so the stereo and surround enhancements are mostly intensified versions of ambient effects. The dialogue track is divided between the basic, centered bits and the stereo-enhanced narration, all of which is clear and discernable amongst the punched-up environmental sounds. Composer Steve Jablonsky’s score is deliciously ‘90s, pulling inspiration from the dopey action movies of the era for a thoroughly silly aural experience. Just in case Jablonsky’s score wasn’t enough to establish period, Bay throws in some of the era’s more recognizable pop tunes for good measure. The music is given an effective, directionally-enhanced multi-channel representation and is regularly the most aggressive aural element.

Extras


There are quite literally no extras on this disc. Not even trailers for other Paramount releases. I guess this leaves plenty of space for the A/V, at least.

Pain & Gain

Overall


For whatever it’s worth, Pain & Gain is Michael Bay’s best movie. I’d even go so far as to say it’s his Goodfellas with every intended implication. Even the director’s crummy sense of humour fits the morally abhorrent material to the point that I can’t imagine any other filmmaker bringing this true story to the big screen. This Blu-ray features a very strong 1080p transfer and a super high bit-rate Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, but no extras at all, which is really too bad, since a comparison to the actual events would’ve been a great addition.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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