Pain & Gain
Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (screenplay), Pete Collins (magazine articles)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie and Tony Shalhoub
Pain & Gain was made for around $26 million, an indie budget for a blockbuster action addict like Michael Bay. After the trifecta of mind-numbing bombasity that was his take on Transformers, it can be hard to remember his good old days, when his movies were just okay. This movie helps with that.
Bay’s latest tells the (kind of true) story of the Sun Gym Gang, three bodybuilding thugs from the ’90s who kidnap an arrogant client and torture him until he signs over everything he has to them. Pretty much everyone in this movie is either stupid or unlikable, except for maybe a wiser-than-thou retired detective played by Ed Harris.
In his thickness, the main thug Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) believes he deserves the American Dream because he works hard. He descends from a long line of ill-fated American screen protagonists whose criminality illustrates untamed, primal ambition but also foreshadows their downfall. Pain & Gain is the kind of movie that is made so we can see justice doled out for something we are supposed to have enjoyed watching.
Excess floods nearly every frame of this movie, whether it’s sunbathed pool gatherings or neon-lit strip clubs. It is very pretty to look at, to be sure, but an even bigger reminder that Bay is hated in many film circles not because he is untalented, but because he uses his power for bad rather than good. He has always been a prime example of mainstream studio filmmaking in its most misogynistic and often racist forms, because stereotypes and camera fondling happen to an extreme in his films just like everything else.
Pain & Gain is certainly misogynistic, though its racial politics are a vast improvement over the Transformers 2 scandal. (Print that on the DVD box?) However, the most blatant and puzzling thing about it is its rampant homophobia. For a camera that often licks its lips at the sweat of its male bodybuilders almost as often as its horrendously offensive stripper character (Bar Paly), there are many blatantly callous incidents that amount to “I’m not gay, dude, I swear! Here, let me punch somethin’!”
In one scene, devout Christian Paul Doyle (Johnson) punches out his priest for coming on to him. It is approached with a “Well, what was I supposed to do?” mentality that would be extremely troubling if the movie weren’t attempting to make all of them look like complete morons. Still, even with a somewhat mischievous screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, any play at meaning is subdued by style, for better or worse. It is a cinematically intoxicating work, even going so far as to borrow from Scorsese with multiple, frantic voiceover narrations.
Of course comparisons to Harmony Korine’s recent Spring Breakers are inevitable, too. Sun-bathed thugs on the prowl for the American Dream, extreme violence, etc. This movie is like a very dumb version of that movie. The contrast created by its dark, disturbing story and the sunny Miami landscape seems like an afterthought, although it’s by far the best thing about it. Even with that to its advantage, though, it often matches the characters it’s trying to mock blow for stupid, hypocritical blow.