What does Michael Bay unhinged look like on celluloid? That’s not a question most of us really need answered; eighteen years spent making glossy, lunkheaded action films, blockbusters based on toy lines, and useless horror remakes speak volumes on the subject of Bay’s auteurdom. But maybe the Transformers mastermind has been done an injustice. Maybe, beneath the frat boy wit and visual chaos of his cinema, Bay has kept his one Big Idea squirreled away for safekeeping, waiting for the right opportunity to unleash his unspoiled artistic vision on his audiences. Or maybe Pain & Gain is just an erroneous high water mark in bad taste filmmaking. Whatever the case may be, buckle up and prepare yourself for Bay’s American dream.
Or, more accurately, Bay’s ultra-grimy interpretation other people’s American dreams. Pain & Gain is about as close to Bay has gotten to anything remotely original in a decade (if you want to count Bad Boys II as “original”, of course), but even here he’s yanking the “stuff” of his narrative straight from the headlines. Frankly, the story of Daniel Lugo- here represented by Mark Wahlberg- is so flat-out deranged that it feels like it could have just as easily sprung right out of Bay’s hyperactive imagination. Start with a down-on-his-luck personal trainer craving more from life, end with tell-tale hairs stuck in the teeth of a chainsaw and a grisly barbeque. How does the film get from point A to point B? Insanity and the dopiest kind of dynamic bro-logic.
At first, Lugo reads like an affable cretin; he isn’t someone you’d trust your life or children with, but he reads as a nice guy who might be too fixated on fitness. He’s the kind of character Wahlberg excels at portraying, the low-functioning man who has big dreams of success and achievement but lacks the means to make them come true. But Lugo has more than a few screws loose, and all it takes is a handful of appointments with self-made millionaire Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) to convince our earnest, meatheaded hero that the universe owes him a long-overdue karmic reward. He’s been denied all of the things Kershaw has- bottomless resources, a waterside mansion, women- for too long, and so he determines that he should take what he’s owed by any means necessary.
That’s where things get hilariously ugly. Lugo, in true heist tradition, assembles a team whose secondary members may collectively be stupider than he is on his own. (Though there’s a question as to who among them is crazier.) Like Lugo, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) aren’t bad guys, per se- the crime that they’re most guilty of, we’re told, is being dumb.Unlike Lugo, however, they’re not driven to kidnap, torture, and murder by their ids and the inane philosophy of self-interest peddled by loudmouth huckster Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong). They are, using Pain & Gain‘s own moronically clever term, don’t-ers. Lugo is a doer. So they follow Lugo, and what a miserable path he leads them down.
First, though, they get to enjoy the high life, though only for a split second in time before Kershaw, who survives his encounter with the gang despite being set on fire and run over by a van, hires private investigator Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) to help him get back what’s his. As a director, Bay is nothing if not indulgent, and in Pain & Gain he treats himself like a kid in a candy shop; trailers for the film don’t totally do it justice, but the threat of sensory overload is high. Even when he’s not extolling the virtues of astronomical wealth, Bay seems like he’s in the utmost throes of filmmaking glee, whether he’s orchestrating the gang’s multiple boneheaded attempts to snatch Kershaw off the street or putting Johnson to work beating up inmates in a prison yard.
But Bay’s never happier, and the film is never better, than when he’s heaping thick layers of idiocy upon his characters. Anybody who’s familiar with the real-life case and concerned that Pain & Gain might actually engage in hero-worship of Lugo, Doorbal, and Doyle, rest assured: the “passion” of Bay’s passion project turns out to be a merciless desire to deride his characters for being brain-dead buffoons. There isn’t a moment where Pain & Gain actively tells us to see them as modern day Robin Hoods, heroic representatives of the 99% taking back from the 1%. This is a story of real crime and real lunacy. Bay doesn’t disguise the barbarism of his central characters so much as he enhances it.
To a point they’re sympathetic; they all have hopes of self-improvement, something most of us can relate to. It helps that each actor fully invests himself in his role, particularly Johnson, who hits a career peak in his portrayal of the pitiable Doyle, a musclebound, Jesus-loving titan who’s as meek as they come on the inside. Mackie and Wahlberg are great in their own right- willfully dim and energetically self-absorbed, respectively- but they’re overshadowed by their co-star ever so slightly. Meanwhile, Shalhoub has a blast playing Kershaw’s entitled sliminess to the hilt, making the man into a relentless jerk but keeping him just human enough that the abuse he endures feels horrific instead of cathartic. Harris winds up being less of a presence, quiet and steely, but he’s a necessary element of normalcy that keeps Pain & Gain relatively moored.
If there’s a real flaw to Pain & Gain, it’s that Bay luxuriates a bit too much, rendering the film a hair too long and too cumbersome. Two hours of the sort of vanity, materialism, and ignorance Bay explores here- yes, explores- winds up being morally punishing and tiresome, an exercise in guilt-tripping given how awful we feel for laughing at the sustained ludicrousness Pain & Gain fosters. Considering the pedigree, that’s a wonderful problem to have, but you’d be wise to schedule time for a decompressing nap after leaving the theater: Pain & Gain will make you feel the burn.