Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
If cinema has anything to say about it, the modern American dream is best typified by a grandiose level of entitlement in those who covet it most of all. Just a month ago, we saw Spring Breakers, a nightmarish, neon piece of grotesquerie, compelling experimental art about nubile young women trying to attain their hedonistic Western utopia by stealing from and killing people who dared get in their way, consequences be damned. And now, we have Michael Bay’s loopy, adrenaline-laced echo of the same concept, Pain & Gain; this time, it’s not a quartet of college students, but a trio of bodybuilders, who use force to achieve their dream and never think beyond themselves.
Based on a true story so jaw-dropping that, as one character tries to remove a person’s fingertips in a charbroiled fashion, the caption “This Is Still A True Story” zooms onto the screen, Pain & Gain is a hyper-focused, roided-out attempt to out-Elmore Leonard Elmore Leonard, out-Coen Joel and Ethan Coen, out-Soderbergh Steven Soderbergh. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie portray three obsessive weight-lifters who are alienated and disillusioned at their low-class places in life. They live in Miami, they love to lift, they juice themselves when they have to, they guzzle protein, but they all want more; specifically, Wahlberg’s ringleader, Daniel, desire the riches of a particularly well-off and obnoxious client Victor (Tony Shalhoub); at the very least, Daniel wants Victor to not have them. Though Daniel has a criminal past and boasts that he’s got everything under control because of all the movies he’s seen, it soon becomes clear how rapidly in over his head he and his friends are.
Depending on how forgiving you are or how predisposed you are to an excess of firepower, Michael Bay is not typically a director known for high-quality films, or even films that have a clear, direct focus with memorable performances and storytelling. Pain & Gain was an active choice on his part to make a smaller film, and there’s no question that he succeeded at this ambition. Bay’s lack of restraint is unabated here, but put to use in a more productive way. His hyperactive camera remains present, but fits very well in conjunction with the sprawling, intentionally jittery script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (a long way from adapting The Chronicles of Narnia into Disney movies). One interesting, surprisingly funny decision their script makes is not just giving Daniel voiceover narration; instead, no fewer than six characters narrate the story at turns, often seeming like a weird but enjoyably cacophonous homage to Soderbergh’s The Informant! Bay’s familiar visual hallmarks are, as crazy as it may sound, a perfect fit for such a deliberately disjointed retelling of this darkly comic criminal enterprise.
Pain & Gain gleefully wallows in its players’ sleaziness, and those actors are as giddy to get dirty and nasty as Bay is. Wahlberg, as the most foolishly self-assured of the bunch, channels Dirk Diggler at his cockiest and most desperate, a full-length take on the scene in Boogie Nights where he demands a record-studio producer release his demo tape, to no avail. Daniel, like his cohorts Paul and Adrian, is a numbskull, but he’s fiercely convinced of his dominance and gets lucky way more than you’d think, simply through that confidence. Mark Wahlberg doesn’t always choose the right roles—do you remember him in The Happening? Try not to—but Daniel Lugo is his sweet spot. Dwayne Johnson is, as always, very charismatic as Paul Doyle, the most physically imposing of the so-called Sun Gym Gang, but the weakest mentally, struggling to balance his newfound faith with his crippling cocaine addiction. There is an unexpected amount of competition, but Johnson delivers the best performance here, playing a bruiser who’s not-so-secretly a vulnerable mess this close to having a nervous breakdown. Mackie has less to do, but also taps into his emotional side as a bodybuilder who can’t deal with the fact that the steroids he relies on to be buff have sapped his sex drive, even with his girlfriend (Rebel Wilson). Shalhoub, as the outrageously hapless target of the bodybuilders’ machinations, is agreeably scummy, cutting a comic, Energizer Bunny-like figure, alienating even the private investigator (Ed Harris) he hires to get to the bottom of this nasty business.
Pain & Gain toes the line, but lands on the correct side, of glorifying the actions of its protagonists, just as the 1983 remake of Scarface appears to have done so for myriad would-be Tony Montanas. It’s logical to fear that Bay’s affinity for destruction would manifest as a gung-ho cheer for the three idiots who were so self-centered and selfish as to extort from and kidnap someone simply because they wanted to. Even though we follow Daniel, Paul, and Adrian from the beginning to the predictable end of their scheme (the in medias res opening will tip you off as to the latter), there’s never any doubt that these are bad men doing bad things. Markus’ and McFeely’s script does not shy away from black comedy, to be sure, but it’s almost always at the expense of the leads, constantly getting boxed into a new, tighter corner and failing to find a way out.
Pain & Gain is Michael Bay’s best movie; more importantly, it is a honest-to-goodness good movie. It’s nowhere near perfect—there’s an unnecessarily mean-spirited string of fat jokes, and it’s, no surprise, a bit too long—and it can’t top something like No Country for Old Men or Fargo. Yet it is a pleasant surprise that Bay wanted to make a film even moderately worthy of such a comparison, and even more strangely delightful that this film actually deserves the comparison. As lunkheaded and brainless as the three leads of Pain & Gain are, the film itself is clever, sometimes painfully unflinching, and unwavering. Michael Bay is still the most ADD-addled director of his generation, but he finally found a movie in which to channel that attitude to a positive end. At last, Michael Bay has achieved qualitative glory.
— Josh Spiegel