Pain & Gain: Michael Bay’s American Dream Is Better Than Yours

SUBTLETY. Michael Bay. Pick one.

Bay’s record with history-based films is best left unsaid but, since Pearl Harbor exists (something which cannot be undone), it must be mentioned. Eyebrows were raised when Bay announced his attachment to this script, loosely documenting the true story of the Sun Gym Gang, a trio of body-builders involved in kidnap, extortion and eventually murder in 1999 Miami. Would the man who made Bad Boys II really possess the sensitivity necessary for such a project?

Encouraging signs soon emerged when reports came back detailing a $26 million budget (arthouse money in Bay terms) and salary waivers by the director and two of the stars (Wahlberg and Johnson), indicating that his intentions were not strictly fiscal in nature. Sensitivity, perhaps, was always out of the question: Pain & Gain is brutal, lavishly violent and consumerist from start to finish but – here’s the kicker – for the first time in a long, long time, these traits feel like they belong. There is a sincerity behind the bombast that punches hard and swiftly enough to make the film a resounding success, easily the best effort Bay’s managed since The Rock way back in 1996.

From the moment you hear Mark Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo cite Scarface’s Tony Montana as an inspiration, the examination of American excess makes its own case. If you’re going to get anyone to direct an ode to extravagance and the dark side of the American dream, it’s Michael Bay (since Brian de Palma stopped being relevant anyway). The man knows no subtlety, after all. This film is not subtle, not by a long shot, but it is damn good at what it does.

The plot kicks off when Lugo finds himself frustrated with the dead-end nature of his life and job in the arse-end of the 90s (and you know it’s the 90s because ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is on the soundtrack). Assembling a team of oafish cohorts, he plots to kidnap and extort money from his boss Victor Kershaw. The plan (eventually) goes smoothly until Lugo is recognised and the three dither over what to do next.

The premise bears resemblance to Fargo and so does much of the tone, densely planted with blackly comic beats. Much of the comedy revolves around the trio’s unbelievable stupidity; the kidnap attempts border on parody but the absurd nature of the true story propels them into the realms of plausibility (the film’s kidnappers take three attempts to succeed; the real ones took six) – Bay’s direction perfectly matches the madness at the plot’s heart.

Concerns have been raised over how sympathetic the portrayal of the three main characters is. These fears are unfounded; while the film centres squarely on the three, there is thankfully no attempt to elicit a sympathetic response from the audience – it’s far closer to pity.

Wahlberg’s ability to, in a heartbeat, turn from charismatic and affable (albeit colossally stupid) nice-guy to intense, eyeballing psychotic is a marvel to behold. Similarly, Dwayne Johnson’s Paul switches from born-again Christian moral grandstanding to coked-out paranoiac crazy-talk at the drop of a hat. While Tony Shalhoub’s relentlessly obnoxious Kershaw and Anthony Mackie’s impotent tagalong Adrian are played with a real wit and gusto, it’s Wahlberg and Johnson who steal the show, charisma dripping from their obscene pecs.

Crucially, despite (or perhaps because of) the occasional foray into scenery-chewing, the central characters are terrifyingly believable given the profligacy of their environment. Even Ken Jeong seems like a real person in his brief cameo as a self-absorbed motivational speaker. Through suburban opulence, nightclub neon and sunsoaked beaches we are given a surface glimpse into the American dream; the shallowness of the imagery is exactly what runs through the mind of Lugo and his cohorts in their multiple strands of narration, revealing in stark detail the vacuous nature of their ambition but also lending a biting satirical edge to Bay’s direction, deftly condensed into Lugo’s oft-repeated mantra of “you’re either a doer or a don’ter”. Though painted in the broadest strokes possible, the satire does strike home, ably flanked by every element of the film’s production.

The film is endlessly quotable with one-liners flashing left and right. Most of them are carried by the incredible dim-wittedness of the trio, my personal favourite being “WHAT THE **** IS A NOTARY?” delivered by an utterly dumbfounded Wahlberg. While the screenplay is generally fantastic, littered with wonderfully snappy exchanges, Bay’s old penchants for genital, racial and sexual humour proliferate too, though here their juvenility and offensiveness slots in nicely with the characters’ own conceits. Such humour isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it has more of a place here than in the Transformers series.

One of the most surprising elements of Pain & Gain is it’s restraint, especially considering the exorbitant lunacy of its story. There is one – count it, one – explosion in the whole film. To fans of Bay’s previous work, this might amount to something resembling sacrilege. The excess this time is derived primarily from the characters’ exploits rather than a horde of bloated action scenes.

This might imply that his signature visual flair is notable in its absence; on the contrary. It shines through: his low angles are bathed in Miami sunlight, his tracking shots are fluid, his close-ups are expertly judged, detailing in acute tableaux the ‘roid-rage mania driving these horrible people forward. The frame is restless, constantly on the move but steady enough for clarity’s sake. A delicious stylistic touch is the repeated use of freeze frames for comedic effect; when things start to get really crazy, the film reminds us that, yes, “this is still a true story.” Cue dropped jaws and astonished guffaws.

Pain & Gain is, fittingly enough, a Scarface for the 21st Century – it’s sumptuous, decadent, obscene, excessive and quite, quite insane, but it’s a wonderful surprise from a director who could do so much and yet often chooses to limit himself to so little. This film is the former and it’s damn good.