Say what you will about Michael Bay, but the man doesn’t let any of the shit anyone says about him get to him. He still soldiers on, his apparent disdain for the work he churns out practically drenching every piece of celluloid he’s ever produced. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m spitting. He so very clearly HATES the Transformers franchise, almost as much as we love to rant about how much we hate it. So, it’s a little weird to see his name on something that he is legitimately enthusiastic about. And since there aren’t any anamorphic robots or mansions to blow up this time, it would seem that the master of the lens flared destructathon is trying to prove that he’s more than a guy who knows how to make a… well, a lens flared destructathon! And he has… sort of. For most of its 130 minute run (yeesh!), Pain & Gain is an entertaining satirization of criminals, the misinterpretation of the supposed “american dream”, the body building lifestyle, and everything in between. The humor is poignant, the performances are pretty good, and it’s presented in the classic, Bay-esque style, which surprisingly aids the story as opposed to hindering it. And then, the movie takes a turn, and, for me at least, reveals itself for what it is. A sick, twisted, perverse joke!
Daniel Lugo is self-described doer. He has completely bought into the self help craze that you can be anything you want to be and the universe will give it to you if you believe hard enough. Unfortunately, despite his believing really hard, the universe hasn’t given shit to Lugo, who holds down the same deadbeat job at the Sun Gym, training those he deems to be his intellectual and motivational lessors in the ways of getting buff. Fed up with his lot in life and ready to grab the bull by the proverbial horns, he enlists the help of two fellow bodybuilders in a get rich quick scheme. These are Adrian Doorbal, a steroid abuser (which has rendered him impotent) with a taste for plus sized women, and Paul Doyle, a fresh out of jail meathead who has traded in an addiction to cocaine for an addiction to Christianity… and cocaine. The scheme? Kidnap and extort (read: torture) a douchebag millionaire out of his fortunes. Remarkably, they pull it off, but like all misguided dumbasses, once is just never enough. Soon, these three losers find themselves hopelessly in over their heads as their crimes escalate in severity and the authorities close in.
Based on a series of magazine articles by Pete Collins, which themselves depicted the true exploits of the “Sun Gym Gang”, that Pain & Gain is the best written Michael Bay movie should come as no shock. It boasts a “gotta see it to believe it” story, larger than life characters, and, above all, a grounding in reality that Bay has never even touched. And it’s funny. At times it’s really funny. I’m a sucker for yarns about dumb as bricks criminals, and this is a well made yarn about dumb as bricks criminals. The tone is consistent throughout, gleefully smiling along as these scumbags reap what they sew. It’s just that, the tone is so completely wrong for this story. I’ll talk about that later, but, in a nutshell, when the full escalation of the Sun Gym Gang’s crimes reaches its peak, the comedic tone ceases to be funny and just becomes flat out mean.
It doesn’t help that the performances are almost all consistent with their over the topness. That’s not to say that they are bad though. Indeed, some turn in career best work. Mark Wahlberg is pretty doofy as the “brains” of the gang, Lugo. Wahlberg is always at his best when he’s playing dumb and out of his depth. And just like in Boogie Nights and Ted, he’s deceptively charming here in his idiocy. Well, he would be, if his character weren’t, at the same time, so despicable. Wahlberg, at the very least, does a good job of balancing it all out so that we can, to a certain extent, root for him, and then smile in satisfaction as his world implodes on him.
Anthony Mackie is delightfully clueless as Doorbal. He’s the guy who’s just kind of there, and doesn’t really know why. He doesn’t necessarily agree with the crazy shit he and Lugo and Doyle are doing, but he figures he might as well go along with it since he’s already made it this far. Mackie hasn’t been pulling the “I was in The Hurt Locker too” card all that well since… he was in The Hurt Locker. But he does fine work here.
The real star here is Dwayne Johnson doing what is arguably his best work, uh, ever. He’s just as goofy as the rest of his cronies, displaying a healthy amount of his rock (hehe) solid comedic timing. See him coked out of his mind, and it’s only funnier. But he also is the subject of some heady moral and dramatic character beats. He’s the only one to ever voice any sort of doubt about what the gang is doing. And as the violence ramps up, he suddenly finds himself at odds with the rest of his “friends”. It’s great work from Johnson, who really internalizes this guy’s conflict as he realizes he’s gone against everything he promised himself he’d uphold, and I hope he capitalizes on it the best way he can.
Tony Shaloub is deliciously detestable as Victor Kershaw, the self-made millionaire that these guys rough up and Ed Harris does his best Steve McQueen as Ed Du Bois III, the private detective who takes the case when the Miami Police Department deem it too absurd to follow up on.
The biggest surprise, though, is Michael Bay, who shows an uncharacteristic restraint for most of the movie. Sure, his usual tropes are here. You still have the overblown slo-mo shots as dudes epically stand up. You still have the absurd levels of color saturation. Seriously, I don’t think Miami looks like that in real life. And you still have the almost offensive sexualization of pretty much every woman who graces the frame with her presence. But, Bay’s characters here are (in all likelihood) a bunch of misogynist pigs, so maybe his own misogyny here is just a way of showing how these guys see the world. That’s a stretch, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt in this case.
But he shows a level head and steady hand when it comes to the comedy. One of the more novel ideas of the picture is that every character is a narrator at various points. So, you’ll have Lugo’s inner monologue waxing poetic about one thing or another, and then you’ll have Doyle’s inner monologue completely contradicting what was just said. And Doorbal’s conscience takes over for a bit, and then Kershaw’s, and Du Bois, and so it goes. It’s a recipe for disaster, but Bay manages to make it all work together. Indeed, some of the best laughs of the movie come from these narrations.
And the first hour and 40 minutes of the movie are very funny. It’s just these guys misguidedly beating up on Kershaw, who is such a scumbag that it’s easy to root against him. And then, when Kershaw gets away and tries to hunt them down, it’s just wild antics as these delusional “criminal geniuses” just keep acting stupid. And why is it so funny? Because it’s, largely, pretty innocent. Low stakes, low risk, high reward. It’s just bad people doing bad things to other bad people, but without any major harm done. OK, sure, you can say the extortion of millions of dollars is major harm, but it’s a harm that you as the movie audience can easily chortle at.
But then, suddenly, in the last 30 minutes, the movie remembers that it’s a true crime story, and not only that, but a true crime story where people died, and died badly. And the movie doesn’t shy away from showing the gory details. The tone takes a abrupt turn into hyper dark territory, which would be fine, except Bay is still giving off an air that it’s all still pretty funny. He still will have captions shooting into the frame making a joke about the proceedings and stop to laugh at certain character’s misfortune. And it’s here that the movie not only lost me, but ruined everything I had liked about it till then.
See, the fact that it’s a true story makes it very hard to laugh at this stuff. And when you are laughing hysterically for an hour and 40, only to have the rug pulled out from under your feet as you realize that you were laughing at the awful events that left people dead and ruined the lives of many others, it just makes you feel dirty. I felt guilty at the end of Pain & Gain, like I had partaken in some heinous school yard prank. All the goodwill the rest of the movie had built up prior to those 30 minutes had completely evaporated, and all I was left with was a foul taste in my mouth. I hated myself for laughing, and I hated Bay for crafting enough of a smokescreen to ensure that I did laugh.
And, for those reasons, despite the fact that Pain & Gain is, on a purely objective level, Michael Bay’s best movie, it is, without a doubt, my least favorite of his. Say what you will about Transformers or The Island or Bad Boys. At least I didn’t feel like I was to blame for something after watching those. They are shitty, loud, busy, popcorn flicks, but I don’t feel guilty after paying to see them. I did feel guilty after watching Pain & Gain. I can’t figure out if Bay was trying to hold up a mirror in an effort to show us how desensitized we’ve become to this shit (or… something like that), or if we are the victims of the ultimate joke of the film. Either way, I don’t appreciate it.