I have to openly admit this right up front: I have not wholly enjoyed any of Michael Bay's films. Indeed, the man and I have a tenuous relationship at best, going all the way back to 1996 when I saw The Rock. Although I was 17 years old at the time – i.e. the prime age for viewing stupid big-budget Hollywood action films fulla 'splosions and grenades and missiles fulla VX gas – I found the film to loathsome and tedious and possessed of a fully off-putting breed of machismo that seemed to surpass what I could tolerate in the few action movies I did like. I hated The Rock to such a degree, that I swore off action films for many years. If it had a gun battle, a car chase, or a single explosion, I would turn my nose up at it. I retreated into a comforting cocoon of indie dramas, old classics, and oblique European movies, culled out of my local video stores and libraries. Michael Bay singlehandedly, and for several years, ensured that I was a first-class snot. I eventually calmed down a bit, and learned to love explosions again (thank you for showing me the way, Die Hard), but for a while there, I was inconsolable.
Michael Bay has, in recent years, been pigeonholed as one of the most enormous one-man industries in Hollywood, having made three (and soon to be four) awful-yet-successful films based on the Transformers toys. Each of these films has had an enormous budget, and is replete with the accoutrements of Bay's particularly lunkheaded purview; that is: bad pacing, hyperactive editing, military fetish, supermodel objectification, and a way of directing actors so that they can somehow simultaneously overact and show no character at all. In a few interviews, however, Bay has revealed that he feels somewhat stifled by the big studio-controlled budgets that he is often yoked with, and longed to make an action film that was a bit more intimate and modest. Pain & Gain is, in a way, his dream project, as it contains no CGI-heavy action set pieces, focuses more on character, and was made with a relatively modest budget of $20 million. While Pain & Gain has all the elements of the worst of Mr. Bay – the film lingers pornographically on the good-looking human bodies, while harboring an open “humorous” disdain for all females, fat people, many minorities, and even the dreaded "homos" – I can still say openly and confidently that Pain & Gain is Michael Bay's best movie.
Pain & Gain follows the true story of one-time con-man and full-time bodybuilder Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) who is as buff as he is stupid. Lugo lives in Miami in the mid-1990s (about the time Bay was making The Rock, and a year after Wahlberg had finished the Marky Mark Workout Video), and longs for more than a career of lifting heavy things. Pain & Gain shoots for the neon yellow aesthetic and dude-man partyboy ethos of the mid-'90s workout culture, but falls a little short, feeling like it could have been set in the present day, provided the cell phones were a little smaller. Indeed, the soundtrack is loaded with a few blazing anachronisms. Eventually Lugo devises of a scheme to kidnap a rich client at his gym (played by Tony Shalhoub), keep him hostage in a sex toy warehouse, and torture him until he agrees to sign over all his worldly possessions. In order to do this, he enlists an ambitious buddy (Anthony Mackie) and a born-again ex-con (Dwayne Johnson). Eventually they not only manage to pull off their scheme, but get involved in increasingly dangerous plots to rip off even richer suckers.
What Pain & Gain does nail is the joyous ambitious stupidity of these characters, who live by a can-do attitude lifted directly from the dubious aphorisms of TV life coaches. Lugo and company feel that their ripped bodies and open steroid use is a sure sign of their patriotism, that financial success is their divine right, and that they are justified in doing horrible things to rich people in the name of being, in the words of the on-screen guru, “a doer and not a don't-er.” The way these idiots behave is totally believable, and I could trust that one of them would date an airheaded stripper, one would be into fat chicks (Rebel Wilson plays a love interest), and that Dwayne Johnson could easily be led into a criminal scheme despite his oft-voiced Christianity. Johnson, indeed, is the best part of the film, capturing the enthusiasm and charming naïveté of an ex-con who, well, just doesn't know any better.
For the first 30 minutes of the film, you get the sense that Bay is finally using his filmmaking aesthetic to make a point; that he might even be sending up the ultra-masculine action film ideal that he has espoused in all his other films. For a brief while, Bay seems to be having actual fun, making an honest-to-goodness crime comedy, openly mocking the might-makes-right American pseudo-ideal that leaked into all the male action heroes of the 1980s (which the characters no doubt grew up admiring). They are not criminals. They are American heroes grabbing the money that The American Dream promised them and has, until now, only allowed them to become physically stronger. There is no deep dimension to Lugo and his cohorts. They have no skills, they have no smarts, they have no wisdom, they have no sophistication, they have no manners. They live in a low world where wealth will be the only measure of strength. “Don't you want some money to go along with those muscles?” It surprises me to say, but Bay comes tantalizingly close to something approaching a comment.
Sadly, the knowing and satirical tone that is established in the film's first quarter does not continue, and Bay's usual mode of constant hyperactive storytelling enthusiasm begins to have the usual wear and tear on the eyeballs. Indeed, at an ungainly 130 minutes, Bay's pacing problems remain undaunted, and you'll start to feel the crush. Indeed, near the end of the film, when the characters are still making homophobic remarks, the joke will no longer be as clear, and you'll begin to wonder if Bay really feels the same way as his characters. The knowing asides become less knowing, and start to feel cheeky. Bay even breaks out that old chestnut of the three main characters, walking abreast and in slow-motion, away from an exploding car, and you can't be sure if Bay intends for that to be a satire of the well-known cinematic saw, or if he intends for that to be a legitimately cool moment. There is even a scene, when Dwayne Johnson is barbecuing human hands out in his front stoop, when a caption appears on the screen to remind us that “This is still a true story.” Bay wants to remind us that he's in on the joke. His long-form filmmaking certainly isn't doing the job.
So Bay, when restricted, seems to show some promise, but is still too bound by his interests to make a film as ambitious as Pain & Gain with 100% success. I hope that this film does well financially, however, and Bay continues to work small. For the first time in a hugely successful career, he showed a sliver of something more sophisticated, and for that, I applaud the man for the first time.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. If you want to buy him a gift (and I know you do), you can visit his Amazon Wish List.