In a word: Whoa!
If Michael Bay was put on earth to make one movie, it’s Pain & Gain. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a reasonable question, but for just over two hours Bay indulges in all of his most fetishistic and delightfully bad taste inclinations in a true crime story so absurd it actually suits all of the gloss and misplaced testosterone. Despite all the genuine human tragedy and psychosis on display, Pain & Gain plays out like a perverse dark comedy. For those who lived through the story, I’m sure that will seem offensive. Yet, for just over two hours the film is an over-stylized fiesta of filthy jokes, ultra violence, grandiose cinematography, and of course slow motion explosions. It’s almost subversive and almost self-parody, pushing Bay’s meagre storytelling skill set as far as he can manage. It ain’t a masterpiece, but is entertainingly unpredictable and if nothing else, you can’t say that about any other project that señor Bay has thrown at the screen before.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a Miami beefcake personal trainer who feels life has cheated him because he’s not obscenely wealthy despite being a walking monument to physical perfection. After seeing a motivational speaker explain the importance of being a “doer” (Ken Jeong, screaming until it’s funny), he decides it’s time to take action. Wahlberg recruits a fellow bodybuilder so full of steroids that a certain part of his anatomy is non-functional (Anthony Mackie) and another who is an ex-con whose newfound love of Jesus barely contains his former violent ways (Dwayne Johnson). Together they decide to kidnap a rich Columbian jerk of a bodybuilding client (Tony Shalhoub) with plans of torturing him until he gives up everything he owns. They wear cheap ninja costumes and bungle the kidnapping a number of times before finally locking him in a sex toy warehouse where they beat him with dildos and torture him until he convinces his wife and child to move back to Columbia and signs all of his assets over to the bodybuilders. Then they try to kill him and screw that up too, but Shalhoub is such a jerk and his story is so ridiculous that no cop believes him. Eventually Shalhoub hires a private investigator (Ed Harris) to uncover the truth. By then our three “heroes” have indulged in so many excesses of the American Dream like starting neighborhood watch programs, fixing failing members, getting married, and doing cocaine off naked strippers that they’ve decided to pull off another bank account emptying scam on a phone sex company owner. That scam ends in murder, chainsaw n’ lye body disposal, and death sentences.
The story may sound absurd, but only because it is and somehow the most outlandish parts of the film are the closest to the actual events. There are many different ways that this movie could have been played, the most logical of which would be as a horrific true crime tragedy. Bay instead opts for the attitude of the policemen who presumably told him the story (it’s no accident that Ed Harris’ private detective is the only likable character on screen) and amps up the events into a blockbuster dark comedy. By playing the film from the perspective of the bodybuilders, the audience is stuck with three completely delusional characters who start off as idiotic dumbbells before turning into accidental psychopaths. All the torture and murder is played as a perverse quest for the American Dream and Bay plasters the stars and stripes all over his sets to make sure the audience gets the message. It’s all admittedly quite funny, with the protagonists somehow convinced that they are right at all times. It doesn’t hurt that those guys are perfectly cast. Wahlberg taps into the delusional innocence of Boogie Nights’ Dirk Diggler and carries the movie well, while Dwayne Johnson is hysterical as the born again Christian-turned coke head too dense to ever realize when he’s crossed the line. Anthony Mackie is a slight weak link as a character defined entirely by erectile dysfunction jokes, but once he gets to pal around with Rebel Wilson as his big booty bride even he adds plenty of laughs. Wilson isn’t the only comedic actor Bay plugs in around the edges, with the likes of Jeong, Shalhoub, and Rob Corddry adding more than a few laughs from the sidelines. Despite all of the SWAT team chases and hand bbqing insanity (actual scene), this is the closest thing Bay has ever made to a character-driven movie and his entire cast delivers surprisingly well.
Now, even though the main strength of Pain & Gain is the film’s glorious celebration of bad taste, that’s also something a little disturbing about the movie. Hilarious or not, these stories are genuine and Bay only reminds the audience of that via on screen text at a particularly ludicrous moment for laughs. There’s nothing outright wrong with laughing human at depravity (it’s a great coping mechanism), but given that the victims and the deceased family members from this case are still alive, it’s safe to assume that they won’t appreciate this slapstick rendition of an actual multiple homicide. That gives the movie an interesting other level of tension. Throughout, Michael Bay seems to be parodying his own style to an extent, playing his patented fetishizing glamour shots and over-the-top violence/patriotism for laughs. However, the movie does still glamorize these murderers even if we laugh at them for being stupid, and Bay’s presentation of women has yet to elevate beyond pubescent body-ogling. The big joke of Pain & Gain is that these bodybuilders were so jacked up and high that they somehow thought they lived in the world of a Michael Bay movie and now they’re actually in one. Bay might be able to laugh at what he does, but he can’t really criticize it and none of the terrible people in this movie actually feel condemned by the end. They are all given hero exit shots. Much like Bad Boys 2, there’s something fascinating about watching a movie in which Michael Bay seems both aware of why his movies are a joke and blissfully unaware of what’s makes them so wrong.
So, this is certainly a strange wild ride of a movie. It’s the kind of project that could only get a greenlight in Hollywood when a director earns a studio several billion dollars off of Transformers movies and is able to make an insane passion project as a reward. Pain & Gain is a big blast of popcorn entertainment that somehow gets away with glamorizing murderous psychosis. If you want to get overly analytical, I suppose you could say that’s true of all Michael Bay movies. The only difference is that this time Bay seems like he’s in on the joke…or maybe not. Either way you’ve got to see the flick just to confirm its existence. Bleakly comic, hard R genre movies aren’t supposed to double as marquee summer blockbusters, and unless Bay has another insane true crime story up his sleeve, we’ll probably never see anything like Pain & Gain in the summer movie season again.