PAIN & GAIN Movie Review: Michael Bay Back Where He Belongs

A black comedy on steroids, PAIN & GAIN is Michael Bay's true calling.

This is what Michael Bay should have been doing all along. He’s been wasting years of his life making incoherent robot movies he doesn’t even like, and all along he should have been making pitch black movies with the conscience of a sociopath.

Pain & Gain is Bay’s take on a Coen Brothers film, his Fargo, a dark comedy about criminal schmucks who are their own undoing. Bay’s always been a Coen fan - look at the casting of his films and you’ll see Coen regulars again and again - and it’s wonderful to see what he thinks their movies are all about. Through the lens of Bay a Coen film is mean, sadistic and without any sort of humanity or uplift. It’s filled with broad, sometimes unpleasant humor. Its disdain for humanity is equal opportunity. It’s pretty damn good, but way too long.

As a Bay film Pain & Gain is often magnificent. He’d be one of our greatest filmmakers if he had a sense of storytelling and/or a a producer who held him back from his excesses. Thirty minutes shorter and Pain and Gain is one of the best, if craziest, movies of the year. At the current runtime Pain and Gain is a very good movie that will exhaust you terribly.

Based on a true story, Pain & Gain is about a trio of bodybuilders who pursue the capitalist American dream by kidnapping a rich guy and torturing him until he signs over everything he owns. It’s not the best of plans in the first place, and it eventually goes terribly, disastrously wrong. It all takes place against the oversaturated backdrop of hyper-hedonist Miami, a world populated by muscleheads and bikini babes and a handful of schmucks who wish they could be like them.

Bay, working from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on magazine articles by Pete Collins), is tackling the very center of the American Dream - a rotten, rapacious core of pure avarice and envy. Bay’s trademark flapping American flags are back, but this time they’re the background to vicious materialism and venal pettiness. This isn’t an action film exactly, but Bay is still spraying bullets - this time he’s doing it himself and the targets are the industries of self-help that target the weak and the pliable.

Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a self-made man, physically. He’s pumped up, and he has the vision to pump up the gym at which he works, taking a place that had been a veritable old folks’ home and turning it into one of Miami’s hottest iron pumping spots. The pool, once filled with blue-hairs and debris, is now the home of sleek babes and swole men. Attracted to this world of physical perfection are guys like Victor Kershaw, a self-made man - financially.

Lugo feels like he’s the perfect human specimen, but he sees a rich guy like Kershaw and wonders why he can’t have that. Why he can’t have the business and the money and the big, beautiful house on the water. Lugo understands the value of hard work when it comes to creating a beautiful body, but he seems incapable of making that leap when it comes to making money. And to make matters worse, Kershaw doesn’t really respect Lugo. He treats him sort of like shit. So Lugo decides to take everything Kershaw has.

He teams up with fellow muscleheads Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne Johnson) to kidnap Kershaw - he assures them Kershaw is a criminal, because how else could an asshole like that get so rich? - and force him to sign over everything he ever had. But Kershaw, while not a grand physical specimen like the trio, has a strength they can never understand.

That’s just like the first act; Pain & Gain is as bloated as the delts on display in the gym. After the Kershaw kidnapping the trio are rich, but still stupid. And Kershaw, who they leave for dead, survives. Then things keep going, get bad and then get worse.

That bloat is frustrating because there’s so much to like in the movie. Johnson, for instance, gives easily the performance of his career; his Paul is a more comedic character, an ex-con who has gone sober and over-embraced Jesus. The former Rock manages to make Paul sympathetic and pathetic at once, and while Bay’s sense of humor is a little on the broader side of things, Johnson reigns it in and slightly underplays the character. We always knew that The Rock had the charisma of a movie star, but this film proves that he also has the chops of an actor.

Wahlberg and Mackie are wonderful as well, in their own special way. Wahlberg is in whine mode here, every sentence ending on an upturn. Mackie, meanwhile, is endearingly dim. Each of the men represent a different aspect of the need for self-improvement: Lugo wants to be rich, Adrian has a dick broken by years of steroid abuse, and Paul just wants to be loved. Bay gives each actor plenty of space to go deep into their characters, and even during the blackly comedic scenes - a sequence where corpses are being sliced to pieces, for instance - there’s character exploration.

Yes, character exploration. In a Michael Bay film.

Shalhoub is a little more one-note; Kershaw, who in reality probably wasn’t a bad guy, is played as a real jerkoff. Shaloub is hilarious, but you get the sense his nastier qualities were invented to make Lugo et al seem less like straight up bad guys... which they are. Shaloub does manage to find the humanity in Kershaw, and you can’t help but admire a guy who fights so hard against people so dumb. But, like everyone else in this essentially misanthropic movie, he’s pretty dumb and stubborn himself.

If there’s one character who comes closest to being presented positively it’s Ed Harris’ private investigator, Ed Du Bois. By the time Ed shows up Pain & Gain feels a bit like it’s turned into Pain & Gain 2, but Harris provides some needed moral certainty to a movie that is otherwise Spy vs Spy: Assholes Edition. Harris is fine, but there’s a ghostly quality to him here, like he’s just walking through the film. He’s not quite in the same movie as everybody else; he’s acting in a more toned down, real film.

Maybe ‘a more real film’ is unfair. I think Bay has made a real movie here, if a bombastic one. He balances the comedy and the characters nicely (let’s put it this way: Ken Jeong is essentially a cameo, not a running gag like in Transformers: Whichever One) while also bringing engaging and excellent visual style. The fact that everything is so over the top is partially because of the true story (at one point text comes on screen to assure us that what we’re watching is still true) and partially because Bay is incapable of subtlety.

Which is the heart of the film’s most wonderful dichotomy: this is a dumb movie laughing at dumber people. It’s a guy with one leg cracking jokes about a guy with no legs. Pain & Gain keeps turning to the audience, saying “I’m not as dumb as those guys... right?”

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