Directed by: Michael Bay.
Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely based on the articles by Pete Collins.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg (Daniel Lugo), Dwayne Johnson (Paul Doyle), Anthony Mackie (Adrian Doorbal), Tony Shalhoub (Victor Kershaw), Ed Harris (Ed DuBois), Rob Corddry (John Mese), Bar Paly (Sorina Luminita), Rebel Wilson (Robin Peck), Ken Jeong (Johnny Wu), Michael Rispoli (Frank Griga), Keili Lefkovitz (Krisztina Furton), Emily Rutherfurd (Carolyn 'Cissy' DuBois), Larry Hankin (Pastor Randy), Tony Plana (Captain Lopez), Peter Stormare (Dr. Bjornson), Vivi Pineda (Detective Haworth), Ken Clement (Detective Costello), Yolanthe Cabau (Analee Calvera), Brian Stepanek (Brad McCalister).
At his best, which is admittedly rare, Michael Bay has always been a gifted Tony Scott imitator. Previous to his latest film, Pain & Gain, the best film Bay ever directed – by far – was 1996’s The Rock, which would fit in nicely alongside Scott’s action output during that time – Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, etc. When Scott started pushing visual boundaries in the 2000s, Bay tried to follow suit – but other than parts of Bad Boys II and The Island – what this mainly meant is that Bay directed incoherent action sequences, in big, dumb, loud movies. Scott legitimately pushed boundaries – Bay did not – but as vilified as Bay is (much of it deserved), the truth has always been simple – Michael Bay can be a talented filmmaker. It’s just that of his films are so big and dumb – and so seemingly ignorant of just how big and dumb they are – that it’s impossible to like them. Bay appeals to the lowest common denominator – and since his films make money, he keeps doing it, and people keep giving him money to do so. But somewhere in there is a real director. With Pain & Gain, Bay lets that director out for a bit. It is the best film Michael Bay has ever made.
What’s strange is that it is still every inch a Michael Bay movie – although the budget is lower than most of his films, this is still a big, loud, dumb movie – except saying the movie is dumb isn’t exactly true. All the characters in the movie are complete idiots, true, but the movie – I think anyway – realizes this. Some will undoubtedly see the movie as hypocritical on Bay’s part – after all, the movie criticizes the empty headed, fast cars, big money, sexist attitude of its protagonists, even though it is his films that have glamorized the same thing for nearly 20 years now. Fair enough. Yet, perhaps because Bay is so familiar with these attitudes, he is the perfect director to really direct this film about the shallowness of those attitudes. He sees his characters for precisely for what they are – and makes the audience do the same. Is Michael Bay really calling the audience of a Michael Bay film idiots? Well, if the shoe fits.
The movie stars Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo, a muscle bound lunkhead who works in a gym in Miami circa 1994. He has just out of a jail for fraud when he talks his way into a job as head trainer at a flailing gym – and immediately turns it around. He’s into self-help seminars – given hilariously by Ken Jeong – “Don’t be a Don’ter, Do be a Doer”. All of Lugo’s heroes – “Rocky, Scarface, everyone from The Godfather” – are self-made men, and he sees himself the same way. The problem, of course, is that Lugo is an idiot, and thinks that the best way for him to become a “self-made man” is to rob a rich person. He finds a particularly hateful specimen – Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub) at the gym. Half Colombian-half Jewish, Kershaw is all asshole. And because he’s an immigrant, Lugo feels that as a “native born American son” he is entitled to Kershaw’s piece of the American dream (flags are flapping everywhere in this movie). But Lugo’s doesn’t want to do a simple smash and grab job He’s “seen a lot of movies”, so he knows what he’s doing. He enlists the help of his two even stupider friends – Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) – the latter of which is a former cokehead, who became a Born Again Christian in jail. Their plan? Kidnap Kershaw, and make him sign away all his assets to them. The only problem is, Kershaw is a lot tougher than he looks. Oh, and that the plan is moronic.
What Bay is attempting in Pain & Gain is not that different than Harmony Korine’s recent Spring Breakers – he is making a portrait of American stupidity - the American Dream gone bad. About how people want everything, but don’t want to do anything to earn it. Korine’s film is bolder, more provocative and more clearly a satire (even if some critics, and apparently most audiences missed this), whereas Bay mainly plays it straight. He sees with perfect clarity how one horrible idea leads to another, and yet another, and how these three idiots end up doing some of the most monstrous, disturbing things you will see in a movie this year. All the characters – except ex-cop Ed Harris – are morally bankrupt. Bay knows this, and depicts it with the kind of clarity, without the normal finger wagging, that is actually quite unique.
The acting in the movie is uniformly wonderful – especially by Wahlberg, who daringly goes down the rabbit hole in idiocy, and Johnson, who brilliantly plays off his tough guy persona, to make the most oddly sympathetic character in the movie. Tony Shaloub does what he does best – be despicable. Anthony Mackie is wonderful as the most insecure of the group – although it appears he has reasons to be so insecure. And Rebel Wilson gives a few hilarious scenes that are basically non-sequiturs, although so entertaining you don’t really care. All of the actors go for broke – and if Wilson and the only other major female character – Sorina (Bar Paly), who plays a dim Russian stripper, don’t exactly convince you that Bay isn’t the sexist everyone accuses him of being, at least this time, they’re not really dumber than the male characters. It’s a start.
Pain & Gain is a mess of contradictions. It mocks this culture, while also seeming to embrace it. It is a movie that depicts the harshest, most vulgar and lurid acts of violence you will see in a movie this year, and yet also plays them for laughs. You could certainly argue that this is insensitive to the real life victims of these muscle bound buffoons, and you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. But then that’s true of all movies based on real life crimes – and Bay embraces the vulgarity so completely, you have to kind of admire him for it. No, Michael Bay is still no Tony Scott – he would have made an even more twisted movie. And when I think of what the Coen Brothers could do with this material (it isn’t that far away from Burn After Reading), I’m somewhat disappointed they didn’t make it. When I get right down to it, I’m not sure whether I should be shocked and offended by the film, and decry Bay for making it in the first place, or be shocked and offended, and praise him. I’ll choose the later. For the first time Michael Bay has made a film worth talking about.