Chuck Koplinski: Outlandish story in 'Pain' matches director's style

Director Michael Bay throws audiences a curve ball with his latest film "Pain and Gain" as he actually tells a story about human beings rather than alien robots. After conquering the international box office and rupturing an untold number of eardrums with his "Transformers" films, Bay brings his manic style to a stranger-than-fiction tale of what is perhaps the worst kidnapping scheme ever executed.

That the filmmaker's manic style overstays its welcome is no surprise — though it perfectly suits this outlandish story.

Taking place over the course of eight months, from October 1994 to June 1995, the movie deals with three bodybuilders in Miami who are just smart enough to get into deep, deep trouble. The ringleader is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a man-child with biceps larger than his brain who harbors the notion that "If you're willing to do the work, you can do anything."

It's this sort of gung-ho Americanism that drives the physical trainer to kidnap Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a boorish businessman who happens to be one of his clients. The big lug's plan is to hold the sandwich magnate hostage until he willingly signs over all of his assets, millions in cash and property.

Helping in this hair-brained scheme is fellow muscle-head Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), who could be outdueled by a wooden post in a battle of wits; and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a goodhearted ex-con who ends up constantly wrestling with his newfound Christianity and the nefarious plot he's mixed up in.

The film moves at a brisk pace, and Bay keeps things lighthearted and breezy during the movie's first hour, before things take a decidedly dark turn.

It's actually quite funny at times as these three stooges attempt to abduct their prey on numerous occasions before finally getting it right. Equally humorous are the circular conversations they find themselves in as things spiral out of control and they attempt to justify their increasingly ludicrous actions.

What keeps the story fresh is its ever-shifting point of view. Using voice-over narration, each principal gets a chance to let us know just what he's feeling and thinking — which sometimes humorously runs counter to his actions. All three leads invest themselves fully and regulate their performances to mirror the tempo of the film itself. Going from debilitating ignorance to manic disbelief, Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackie are a delight as they play off one another with crackerjack timing.

The film remains entertaining throughout primarily because you can't believe how ludicrous it becomes. Bay assures us at one point, when Doyle is doing something beyond reason, that "This is still a true story," by flashing that very phrase on screen.

All of this is sharply ironic as the lives of Lugo and his crew have been shaped by the movies themselves. He models himself after Michael Corleone and Tony Montana and assures his partners when things start to go sideways that "I watch a lot of movies; I know what I am doing."

In many ways, this is Bay's version of Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" and is structured much like it. The film's last 45 minutes steadily become a manic frenzy of bad decisions and swift justice with the camera moves and angles becoming more erratic and the editing scheme quicker (even for a Bay film).

It all becomes a bit exhausting by the time the story comes to its tragic end, but overall it's an exhilarating, entertaining ride that reminds us that crime doesn't pay while ignorance is awfully expensive.

 

'Pain and Gain' (3 stars out of 4)

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Rob Corddry and Michael Rispoli.

Directed by Michael Bay; produced by Ian Bryce, Donald De Line and Bay; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.

A Paramount Pictures release. 129 minutes. Rated R (bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity and language throughout). At the AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

Obsession checks in at 'Room 237' (3 stars). Rodney Ascher's documentary "Room 237" is a curious little exercise that allows five people, who obviously have far too much time on their hands, to share their interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining."

While many filmgoers may share a thought or two about a movie they've recently seen around the water cooler at work, each member of this quintet has far more to share, having obviously pored over "The Shining" many, many, many times.

These aren't simply cursory readings of the movie but intricate examinations of it that border on and at times extend to the obsessive, a wonderfully ironic element when one considers the fate of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in Kubrick's film.

The five theories range from the plausible to the outlandish, each initially engaging and all ultimately exhausting. The most obvious comes from Bill Blakemore of ABC News, who contends that the subtext of the film pertains to the annihilation of the Native American tribes of North America. The linchpin to his theory is the ever-present cans of Calumet Baking Powder in the background that sport a logo of a Native American.

College Professor Geoffrey Cock thinks the movie's subtext deals with the Holocaust, as he's noticed that the number 42, or variations of it, continually pop up in the film, which refers to 1942, the year the Nazis began the final solution. Also if you multiply 2 by 3 by 7, you get, you guessed it, 42! (No word yet if anyone has come up with a theory that this might pertain to Jackie Robinson, No. 42.)

Perhaps the most outlandish reading comes from author Jay Weidner, who claims that the film is replete with references to Kubrick having helped fake the moon landing by shooting footage he was forced to make by NASA. Seems the distance to the moon is about 237,000 miles, and little Danny can be seen wearing a NASA sweatshirt at times while the design in some of the hotel's rugs look like rockets.

The final two theories, both of which I quickly lost patience with, posit that the set was designed to reflect a labyrinth that references the classic Greek myth involving the minotaur, which is played out during "The Shining's" climax, while the other suggestions that certain dualities and alternate readings of the film can be gained by playing it forward and backward at the same time. Such a screening was actually set up, and we see part of it play out.

Ascher doesn't show any of the amateur film theorists on camera, which allows him to justify their thoughts by showing clips from Kubrick's film that support their interpretations. This results in some rare "Oh, wow!" moments as the director shows a bit of merit to these theories.

Most of the time, however, you'll be thinking that these folks are reading far too much into the film and perhaps would be better off finding a new hobby.

'Home Run' rife with errors (2 stars). It comes as no surprise that faith-based dramas have found a devoted following. Films such as "Facing the Giants," "Fireproof" and "Courageous" answer a need with their life-affirming messages as the product from Hollywood seldom supplies such themes.

I have no problem with the intent of these movies or those who embrace them. I just wish they were better made and not so heavy-handed in delivering a message of redemption through Christianity.

The latest entry in this subgenre, "Home Run," is a little better than most, thanks in large part to the winning performance of its lead actor and the efforts of the director, who keeps this woefully predictable story moving at a brisk pace.

The lost soul at the center of this tale of salvation is Cory Brand (Scott Elrod), a major league baseball player who's been able to keep his alcoholism under wraps despite the fact that he's had numerous run-ins with the law and more than a few embarrassing moments. His latest takes the cake as he injures an honorary batboy during an on-field tirade, an act that leads to an eight-week suspension. His agent Helene (Vivica A. Fox), a master at damage control, convinces him to head back to his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., to get his head on straight and enter a 12-step addiction recovery program. Brand is resistant, even after he gets into a car accident with his brother, which forces him to take over the Little League team his sibling coaches.

A big part of the problem with films of this sort is that they simply don't know when to quit. Bad enough that Brand has to contend with being exiled to the sticks and forced into a recovery program, but did the four screenwriters have to pile on the car accident as well as a subplot involving his old high school flame who just happens to be a single mom as well as his co-coach?

Overstuffed stories like this stretch and break the laws of credibility. It is far too easy to scoff not only at the ridiculous plot but also the film's message, well intended as it might be.

Yet, as insincere and obvious as the movie is, Elrod is genuine and engaging. A bit player up until this point, the actor brings a sense of much-needed charisma to Brand — and looks like a ballplayer, taking convincing swings at bat and looking as at home on a ballfield as a tick on a dog.

He shows us how Brand has been able to charm his way out of one jam after another but also convinces us of his anguish when he confronts his demons.

Elrod deserves far better than this, and here's hoping that in the future he's given a script that favors a subtle approach in delivering its message rather than a sledgehammer.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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