Pain & Gain
2013, 129mins, 15
Director: Michael Bay
Writer (s): Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Cast includes: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Ed Harris, Anthony Mackie, Bar Paly, Rebel Wilson, Tony Shalhoub
UK Release Date: 30th August 2013
Michael Bay is something of an enigma. It’s very hard to find anybody who will openly confess to enjoying the man’s movies, yet they rake in cash by the bucket load; his last film “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” comfortably cleared $1 billion worldwide, despite being universally regarded as pretty poor. It’s frightening how profitable Bay has been, generally delivering spectacular but dumb pyrotechnic shows; a niche that has failed the film-maker only rarely. Since arriving on the Hollywood scene Bay has almost completely adopted mega budgets (his “Transformers” trilogy cost just shy of $600 million to make), so it definitely piques ones curiosity to see his latest “Pain & Gain” burn Paramount for a measly $25 million. Based on criminal activity that took place during the 90s, “Pain & Gain” sees Bay use misguided bodybuilders to deliver a more complete and intelligent motion picture, allowing the master of disaster a chance to do more than detonate landmarks. The results are unexpected. Not only is “Pain & Gain” the director’s most satisfactory film by a wide margin, it’s also one of the cleverest mainstream Hollywood products of the year. Granted, the success is more down to a trio of brilliant performances and a wonderful screenplay than anything Bay supplies directorially, but there’s no denying that his usual trademarks (frantic edits, sensory excess and rampant sexualisation) are put to appropriate use.
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a bodybuilding guru who believes in fitness and America. Tired of scraping a living as a personal trainer at the Sun Gym, Daniel decides he deserves a bigger piece of the pie, targeting mouthy client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) as the answer to his prayers. Teaming up with steroidal buddy Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and reformed ex-con Paul (Dwayne Johnson), Lugo decides to kidnap, torture and extort Kershaw, in turn grasping the businessman’s dubious wealth. Initially things go to plan - despite fudging Kershaw’s murder- but the bitter victim eventually convinces detective Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) to investigate matters, after the Miami PD shoot down his story as unbelievable. DuBois finds the muscled villains living life at a large and expensive clip, hungry to strike again and continue feeding their newfound material addiction.
It’s true that none of the leading men in “Pain & Gain” are likable, but the script never makes empathy an option during the viewing experience. Daniel, Adrian and Paul are all afflicted with severe faults of character, and their perception of the world is so blatantly deluded that no alert audience member could contort their actions in a positive light. Daniel (easily the smartest and vilest of the band) believes that America is a land in which taking equates to rightful possession, where money solves anything and means everything. The opening monologue paints him as someone who believes he operates on a moral high ground of patriotism and sweat, but in no way does the film condone his viewpoint, setting up its satirical intentions from the outset. This is a movie about the capitalist sickness which infects the Western world, detailing its findings with energy and humour. It may seem like a goofy albeit brutal picture on the surface, but beneath Bay’s flashy canvas is a socially aware work. In the world of “Pain & Gain” greed isn't just good; it’s a prerequisite of national identity.
Between himself, Mackie and Johnson; Wahlberg has both the most grounded and important role to play, the actor making an unbelievably confused individual into a scarily plausible screen presence. Every element of the movie’s thesis is dependent on the figure of Daniel Lugo (who led the criminals in reality) and Wahlberg succeeds in turning him into a repugnant, moronic yet fascinatingly watchable creation, allowing the star some solid comedic bursts amongst the darker material. Mackie gets the broadest lines but sells them with energy and shamelessness; his character is easily the dimmest and as a result gets the lion’s share of “dumb” comedy. However even these cruder farcical moments derive laughter, Bay having sharpened his timing noticeably since the insufferably mirthless “Transformers” sequels, clearly finding the R-rated business more in tune with his own funny bone. If you had told me before I sat down to watch “Pain & Gain” that the jokes sample erectile dysfunction, breast milk and vertically challenged men I would've groaned, but in actuality thanks to the game actors, Bay’s newfound understanding of humour and the depraved, surreal world-building apparent, all of the bizarre, often vulgar punch lines seem both strangely satisfying and necessary. But more importantly all of these silly asides compliment the deranged undercurrent of repulsive behaviour wonderfully, accentuating the film’s intent in an entertaining yet ominous fashion.
Johnson has fun playing around with malleable human spirit, displaying impressively dainty chops as a hulking Christian with the best of intentions. The script has a lot of fun watching Lugo control the noble simpleton, Wahlberg and Johnson’s rapport helping to sell the powerfully entertaining feats of manipulation. Bay should be given credit too for some nicely deployed stylistic touches, which include narration that organically nurtures character development and some playful captions throughout. The Miami of “Pain & Gain” doesn’t look much different than any other Bay feature, but this time the shallow, sleazy glossiness feels justified. “Pain & Gain” is artificially beautiful to look at, dappled in striking light, observed by a camera that rarely sits still. The aesthetic supports the greater whole, and fundamentally gives the picture an expensive look beyond the traditional boundaries of its modest budget. It’s an acute personification of its antiheroes’ ideals – picturesque for sure – but insubstantial and morally hollowed out.
In the past Bay has been correctly accused of sexism, his treatment of particular actresses having bordered on unforgivable. “Pain & Gain” likes to leer at human flesh too, particularly that of comatose Israeli model Bar Paly (playing Daniel’s vapid squeeze), but the misogyny feels so intentional and in tune with the corrupt, black America at the movie’s heart that it can’t help but play to the product’s benefit. It’s very possible this is just Bay exercising his traditional pornographic eye, but in that case writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are due serious credit. Their blueprint fully allows for Bay’s perverted stream of consciousness to supplement the critique at the film’s core. If “Pain & Gain” is an assault on the way the American dream has been twisted and misunderstood by a generation, then surely an obsession with surface level gratification is vital - and seeing as the leads are macho imbeciles - equating a gullible stripper or two into the mix probably isn’t much stretching the truth.
It’s not an action saturated picture, but the explosions, heists and chases that do arise are executed with panache. The supporting detective subplot (bolstered by a strong Ed Harris) chugs away pleasantly in the background, filtering quite comfortably into the berserk final act, which includes darkly amusing violence of Coen calibre. “Pain & Gain” is an outstanding and insanely capable bit of film-making, a cocktail of strong ingredients shaken up into a final recipe whose taste lingers long after the final credits have rolled. First and foremost it’s a striking comedy and an intriguing procedural, but for viewers looking to extract the full potency there’s a lot of engaging ideas to be digested here. It’s probably too much to hope that this is Michael Bay moving in a permanently fresh direction, but after subjecting myself to years of his over-produced noise, I consider this ballsy gem adequate compensation.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013