Michael Bay's Bigger American Dream: Pain & Gain
“My name is Daniel Lugo and I believe in fitness.”
“This is a True Story,” it's a tagline that's been used in marketing for ages and it's something that most informed audiences will take with a grain of salt. In 2013, Michael Bay and Paramount used it to hear effect with Pain & Gain, a picture loosely based on an early 90s crime spree carried out by a trio of meatheads. A personal film, from a director not especially known for that, Pain & Gain is a definite high point in Bay’s career. Telling a more grounded story than what audiences are used to from the director, what's on display should come as a revelation to detractors.
What starts as your standard heist picture - introducing key players, their situation, the plan (a dumb plan at that), and getting to the execution, quickly leads to Bay's signature bonkers aesthetic. We first meet Mark Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo, a gym instructor with a tenuous grasp on the American Dream. He considers himself something of a rags to riches type, unfortunately he doesn't yet have the riches. Luckily for the story and the audience that's watching, he's willing to gain those riches by any means necessary, even if that means breaking the law in a myriad of ways. Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), his steroid using lackey who dreams of becoming rich and buff, signs up with the hopes of big money and even bigger muscles. Mackie is terrific here, giving another great supporting performance in a career filled with them and Bay really gives him the chance to shine.
Every Bay picture has that one memorable actor who's able to truly knock it out of the park. Whether it's Steve Buscemi in Armageddon or Sean Connery in The Rock, there's always at least one showstopping performance. In the case of Pain & Gain, that role belongs to Dwayne Johnson, who gives an Oscar worthy performance as Paul Doyle. A bible-thumping, eventual cocaine abuser, he's been blessed by Jesus Christ himself with the gift of being able to knock someone the fuck out, and he's the heart of the film. Johnson is truly next level here, bouncing between playing the straight man to an absolute maniac during the latter half, he's constantly entertaining, and shows a dedication to his craft that's rarely shown by him. Some of the film's best moments are thanks to Johnson and his electric turn here, and he's the main reason that Pain & Gain stands as my favorite effort from Michael Bay.
The focus of all of their scheming is an especially vile Tony Shaloub, who really lays on a despicable nature that fans wouldn't normally be used to. A total and complete slimeball, he's a Miami millionaire, who's constant bragging draws the attention of Lugo and Co. Seeing an easy mark, Lugo targets his fitness protege and although his team fails at their first few attempts at kidnapping him, eventually, after some inspired hijinks, Shaloub is held captive in a sex toy storage unit. The toys are used as a visual gag, obviously playing at the homophobic nature of most of Bay's dated comedy. If anything, Bay has always been known for his cheap sense of humor, and Pain & Gain, at least in this respect, is no different. That said, it does nothing to diminish the overall effect of the picture, in fact it even heightens the douchey characters that inhabit it.
Having made the switch to digital, the photography on display is thrilling say the least. Bright colors, contrast that's off the charts, dueling formats and yes, slow motion, all come into play. It's a masterclass in a distinct style that has almost as many fans as it does naysayers. Sure, it's very in your face, but that's the magic of a Bay film. It's extreme but his shot composition has purpose and in this case, merit. You're thrust into the lives of these scumbags and the erratic camera movements match the simple minds of the protagonists/antagonists. It's been said that Bay unkowingly satirized his output with Pain & Gain, but that's a moot point when a film is this good, factual accuracy be damned.
Pain & Gain is certainly divisive and isn't likely to win over non-fans, but then again, that can be said about all of Bay's filmography. It seems that whenever he unleashes his latest work on the masses the reception is always split down the middle with very little wiggle room, but he's a veteran filmmaker who has his cult of fans. Some have called his films unwatchable disasters, but for those of us that appreciate his work, Pain & Gain is a definite highlight in a career filled with them.