Michael Bay movies are all about attitude. Not just the director’s aesthetic – he’s arguably the most distinctive and influential commercial stylist of the 00-10s – but you, movie viewer with a flask in your coat pocket. You have to be ready and willing for something big and loud and little bit rank, a treatise on fucking badassery that skates by on its looks alone because it knows it can, knows that it has a bigger swimming pool than Steven Spielberg’s and a transformer in each of its six garages. Pain & Gain‘s ‘roided up crime saga is kind of the perfect subject matter for Bay, although it’s ultimately unsatisfying as a story because he treats it with the same bombastic overkill he’s lavished on other projects.
The movie begins in a way reminiscent of The Godfather‘s opening lines, but whereas that film is about the dark side of the American dream, Pain & Gain is about its dumb side. What petty conman and weightlifter Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) believes in is fitness, and he recruits fellow meathead Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and god-loving ex-con Paul (Dwayne Johnson) to make good on his self-centered dream of an easy life of riches to go with his super-hot bod by, you know, kidnapping a sleazy businessman (Tony Shalhoub) and beating him into signing his fortune away to them. Amazingly, they succeed, but that’s only the beginning of this amazingly true story.
The best thing about Pain & Gain is its cast. Marky Mark always does a fine job playing lovable and dumb, but his version of Lugo (a real person currently sitting on death row for the events of the film) has the right combination of puppy-dog earnestness and adrenaline-fueled yearning to make you completely buy how he comes up with and executes his kidnapping plot. Anthony Mackie as his wingman Adrian has excellent comic timing, although he gets the least to do of the three kidnappers, and Tony Shalhoub as the mark is exactly the sleazy, unsympathetic prick you can believe no one would miss.
Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Rob Corddry, and Ed Harris all turn in deft performances, even when deft means a Cheshire cat smile from Wilson as her clinic nurse enthuses “Penis magic!” But by far and away, the Most Valuable Human Being involved in the entire film is Dwayne Johnson. The movie is worth seeing just for his gentle giant, by turns filled with Jesus and Cocaine. The Rock is idiot charm itself, always meaning the best and doing the worst, and it’s a mesmerizing, rib-splitting thing of beauty to watch.
A film professor once explained Michael Bay to me as the most successful commercial abstract artist, and it’s kind of true. What he’s really interested in is motion and color – gleaming hulks of metal and glass tumbling past the camera faster than they eye can really catch or slowed down to bullet-time or both. And he does very interesting things with movement and color here, mixing film and digital in how he shoots interiors and exteriors, meticulously creating different textures for the big, neon, glossy world of huge possibility and the confining reality of a kidnapper’s den/homoerotic toy warehouse (yes, really).
For some reason, though, there’s a huge number of low angle dolly shots, setting off our protagonists in all of their idiotic glory, but as the film goes on, that becomes sort of the Les Mis problem. Just hold the camera still for a minute, dude, you’re making my head hurt for no reason. The same goes for the screenplay, too. It begins strong, framing the torture Wahlberg devises for Shalhoub in the language of self-help, positivism, and pop culture references, but by the end, both the dialogue and the multi-perspective voiceovers are just so much white noise, noise in which you suspect there never was a signal to begin with.
Bay’s most successful when he’s able to take the things he loves to do – move the camera, compose spectacular patterns of primary colors (an explosion against a blue sky or a sunset on the water), give the soundtrack a life of its own – and pair them with good ol’ fashioned Amurhican melodrama. But conspicuously staging your characters behind American flags or crosses does not make for instant emotion or commentary on the shallow, entertainment-soaked culture of American entitlement whose logical conclusion is a blissfully unaware maniac like Daniel Lugo.
Not that the film needs to be some scathing indictment of consumerism in the mid-90s or anything. But the fact that Bay’s uninterested in stepping back even a little bit makes the film’s third act, when the gang tries to kidnap again and ends up murdering a porn mogul and his wife on whose implants he’s spared no expense, much harder to take. It’s actively gross – although, again, Johnson is the MVP for bringing his coked-up reactions and mile-wide smiles to grilling fingerprints off the couple’s severed hands. It would be one thing if the film’s escalation turned the fun against you, to somehow implicate the viewer or make you feel guilty for enjoying the same over-the-top attitude that lead the three men to dismembering bodies. But the movie retains the consistency of a celebratory frat party boast between pong matches. Of course, Michael Bay probably wouldn’t it want any other way.
If it treated its story with the same care as its gorgeous visuals, Pain & Gain could have been a great movie. As it stands, it’s a good Michael Bay film aided and abetted by its outstanding cast.
Take a Drink: every time someone lifts weights.
Drink a Different Drink: for every new voiceover.
Take a Drink: whenever someone gets hit by a car.
Take a Sip: for every gorgeous aerial sweep of the Miami coast.
If you’re a doer, Do a Shot: whenever Johnny Wu has/needs the bitches back on the boat. If you’re a don’ter, Do One: for every time “Gangsta’s Paradise” plays on the soundtrack.