I have to give credit where credit’s due. Michael Bay took a risk and made something original – well, something outside his sandbox of juvenile, jingoistic explosion-fests. Pain & Gain, Bay’s darkly comic crime thriller about three dim-witted Miami-based bodybuilders with a penchant for steroids, strippers, money and murder, is his first film where story and character take precedence over pyrotechnics. The fact that this movie features just one explosion is a laud-worthy achievement in of itself. Unfortunately, that’s where the praise ends because despite its strengths, including a borderline-great screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, and surprisingly strong performances, Pain & Gain suffers from a myriad of problems. Surprisingly, they’re not limited to Bay’s trademark misogynist, racist and homophobic sense of humor, although that, as his track record has shown, doesn’t help one bit.
Based on a true story (a fact the movie keeps slamming in our faces) that was novelized into a series of Miami New-Times articles by Pete Collins, Pain & Gain is set in 1994, and follows the exploits of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), Paul Doyle (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), three juiced-up lunkheads unhappy with their place in life. Lugo, a gym instructor at a fledging gym in Miami, is fed-up with training fat rich customers. Though he claims to be a hard worker (he keeps telling us via voiceover that he’s a “Doer”), his brief time in prison for fraud has left him with a bank account with holes in it. Lugo is the type of numbskull who idolizes Sonny Corleone and Tony Montana, and whose vision of the American Dream is an orgy of fast cars, sexy babes, and ocean-front mansions.
But instead of working for it, he takes the get-rich-quick route, enlisting the help of fellow gym employee Doorbal, a gas-brained dolt with severe erectile dysfunction, and Doyle, a recently reformed ex-con, born-again Christian whose towering stature is only surpassed by his naivety. Together, the trio hatch up a plan to kidnap Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a greedy, conniving, and very Jewish local businessman (a trait Bay hammers in), and torture him until he signs away all his assets to them. Somehow, despite numerous hitches, the inane plan actually works. However, as the Coen brothers have illustrated time and again in films like Fargo, Raising Arizona and Burn after Reading – crime and stupidity are a lethal combo.
Let’s get something out of the way: Michael Bay is an auteur i.e. a filmmaker with an unmistakably unique vision. Sure, he’s an auteur of crass, degenerate bullshit but there’s no denying that the man has a way with the camera. For better or worse, his penchant for composing frenzied action sequences, ripe with money shots, slow motion, helicopters, and supermodels has been a pioneering point-of-view embraced by 100s of copycats over the last two decades. Although Bay’s bombastic, hyper-kinetic aesthetic works like a charm in his action movies, where plot and characters are fillers for his Rube Goldberg-esque set-pieces, it’s completely out of place in a film like Pain & Gain which already has an unbelievable true story at its core. A smarter filmmaker would have dialed down the style in service of the story, but not Bay. He’s simply incapable of that.
Think of the scene in Fargo where Marge Gunderson drives her car while delivering her famous “It’s a beautiful day” monologue. Now think of it with Molotov cocktails blowing up in the back seat every five seconds. That’s what Pain & Gain is. On one hand, it’s a Coen-esque crime thriller that functions as a critique on the American Dream. On the other hand, it’s “A Michael Bay Film,” complete with rapidly edited shots, fast cars, sunsets, and the requisite misogynistic, racist and homophobic jokes. While some argue this is purposeful, and works for the characters, I’d be more convinced if I hadn’t seen Bay spew this same nonsense over the last two decades. Just because it works in the context, doesn’t mean it’s deliberate.
This problem goes hand-in-hand with the film’s tone, or the inconsistency of it. One moment, Bay’s making fun of his heroes (or villains, the film never settles on what they are), the next he’s shooting them in slow-motion, revering them as Gods. This is further complicated by his decision to vilify Shalhoub’s Kershaw character as a criminal who deserved to be tortured, and casting likeable actors like Johnson, Wahlberg and Mackie, all who play the roles as lovable dumbbells. Johnson, in particular is phenomenal in a career-best turn as the cocaine-addicted, Born Again Christian with a conscience.
Arguably one of Michael Bay’s better films and a departure from his ultra explosively-budgeted action movies, Pain & Gain is Michael Bay’s attempt at making a serious movie. A largely faithful adaptation of the grisly true story, with a strong script and colorful performances, the film is disappointingly hampered by Bay’s in-your-face style and inconsistent tone, which does more disservice to the story than anything. At least it has the best ever use of “Gangsta’s Paradise” going for it.