Like a lot of people, I’m guilty of throwing out disparaging comments about Michael Bay’s filmmaking style, based on his favoured genre, the special effects-laden science-fiction tentpole Summer blockbuster; I did it just the other day in a review of Jurassic Park. The thing is, though, he does have a distinctively meretricious style, which probably makes it perfectly suited for an action comedy heist film set in the permanent dayglo of Florida in the 1990s. I’ve seen quite a few films this year set in that pendulous part of the world — it’s a popular film setting after all — and all of them have gone out of their way to impress upon me what a strange and warped corner of society it is.
So we find ourselves in a world where obscene displays are the norm — whether of wealth or of bodies. Our protagonists are bodybuilders who meet through Sun Gym. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) are personal trainers, the former very much the ringleader. Daniel fancies himself a smart self-made man, who has helped to build up the gym to be a flourishing business with little personal return to himself. Inspired by the self-help motivational speaking of Johnny Wu (another memorable small turn from the dependably maniacal Ken Jeong), he gets the idea to take what he deserves in that time-honoured fashioned of stealing it, and for this he enlists the help of born again Christian, the impressively built Paul (Dwayne Johnson). Their mark is Jewish-Colombian businessman Victor (Tony Shalhoub) and this, as is also the time-honoured fashion, is where things start to go awry.
It’s not just the men’s impressively-defined pectorals that are on display. There’s the wealth of Victor — with his flashy cars, boats and large airy mansion by the sea — and Frank, the porn baron who becomes the gang’s second victim. And of course there are the women, most of whom seem to be (or have been) strippers; the movies are starting to convince me this is the only profession down in Florida, and it’s wearying to be honest. Therefore, Rebel Wilson is refreshing as Robin, a nurse at an erectile dysfunction clinic who marries Adrian without being aware of his source of income. She’s only on screen for a few scenes, long enough though to convince us that when this film isn’t obsessing over pecs and breasts, penises are a matter of abiding interest. The only ones we see on screen are rubber (one of Victor’s sidelines is in sex toys), though they are much discussed — apparently Adrian has suffered some adverse effects from his heightened steroid usage — and we even get one teasingly brief shot of Daniel in his Calvin Kleins, a cute little nod to Wahlberg’s pre-acting days.
For aside from its plentiful action setpieces — chases and shootings — the film is also a comedy, and I cannot deny there are laughs. Mostly these are had at the expense of the three central protagonists, who get up to some very silly (and very morbid) stuff. It’s a difficult blend to pull off, but this much I think the film succeeds at, and reveals Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to have a deft touch as the dimmest but most personable of the three, a man somewhat misguided by the power of Christ, but still hopeful for redemption; for me, his character is the strongest in the film and remains compulsively watchable. The difficulty is in finding these men funny while also needing to judge them for the horrific crimes they commit — the film seems to be in several minds as to whether they are murderous aggressors or victims (of class and circumstance) or heroes (low angle shots against the sky, heroic slow-motion striding into combat), and ends up trying to advocate rather uncomfortably for all three.
After all, the other thing on display is Michael Bay’s directorial style, and it’s not a style that feels comfortable being subservient to characters or a story. There’s not a scene that goes by where the action doesn’t move briefly into slow-motion, or feature some other eye-catching visual effect (a freeze-frame with witty text superimposed is another favourite). By now, he’s able to make it seem the most natural thing in the world — possibly thanks to having in part created the grammar of visual expression in modern blockbuster movies — but it’s still diverting, and doesn’t always mesh with the emotions on screen.
That all said, I wanted to like what feels like Michael Bay’s first recognisably human film, though the location and the story can at times make that difficult. It’s based on real events, as the film likes to constantly remind us, but as ever such claims must be taken advisedly (the Wikipedia entry details all the changes made to characters and storylines) and there’s not always a lot to grasp onto in terms of recognisable character motivation. It’s a look at a seedy underbelly of society filmed as if it’s the most glamorous thing in the world and if it’s not entirely hateful, that at least marks it as a small step for one of the titans of violently dehumanised spectacle.
Director Michael Bay; Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on articles by Pete Collins); Cinematographer Ben Seresin; Starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Sunday 25 August 2013.