There’s a sort of kneejerk reaction to Pain & Gain that makes you want to cast Michael Bay in a different, better light. His latest film, a longtime passion project masquerading as a true crime opus, is a prime example of the right director marrying into the right material. But Bay’s always been capable of delivering work this good. It’s evidenced itself in actioners like The Rock and perennial cult-fave Bad Boys 2. What makes his latest film unique, and the successor to Bad Boys 2 as his most enjoyable picture, is that he’s finally found a story deplorable and morally bankrupt enough to blend effortlessly with his artistic proclivities, visual or otherwise.
Bay moves away from the lethargic, lumbering Transformers bloat to lend his frenzied aesthetical touch to the true-life story of bodybuilder and trainer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg). Lugo, along with like-minded (in fitness and in sickness) counterparts Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson, playing a composite character), is a rich character study for both filmmaker and actor.
Approaching the all-too-real-life event of a crime spree that ruined lives and left two dead (well documented in the film’s source material), one could easily see a different filmmaker exploring the story through the eyes of the victims, particularly Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), who lives long enough to witness Lugo’s and his compatriot’s downfalls. But there’s an added element of danger in Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script, positioning the perpetrators as the leads. It’s hardly a groundbreaking approach, but take comfort knowing it was absolutely the right one in this case. The self-justification in these three men is astounding and awe-inspiring in a sort of you-can’t-honestly-be-that-fucking-stupid sort of way. It results in a film that’s funnier than good-taste should conceivably allow. But… y’know… Michael Bay.
In this very honest sense, you’re seeing a more candid approach to low-level, blue-collar crime and murder than most Hollywood films are capable (cough, Spring Breakers). Lugo, Doorbal and Doyle are idiots, never coming close to committing the perfect crime – so poorly in fact that Bay’s film is essentially a documentation of three novice heisters plotting out their trail of breadcrumbs. Their kidnapping is a mess, their first attempt at murder is a hilarious failure, and their embezzling skills are lacking. We see that crime pays until it doesn’t, and the only reason Lugo and team get away with it as long as they do is on account of the ridiculousness of their crimes’ circumstances. Bodybuilders kidnapping and conspiring out of a sex toy warehouse – at once too good to be true and nightmarishly real, you’d be forgiven for forgetting this shit actually happened.
It’s the rare occasion in the film where you’re laughing with the conspirators and not at them. Wahlberg is again channeling Eddie Adams / Dirk Diggler here, the whispered and sheepish cadence in his voice lending the same boyishness here as it did in Boogie Nights. Lugo’s belief in the American dream is misguided if not downright farcical. Instead of making something of himself, he takes. That, to him, is living the dream. Bay presents Lugo’s motivations in this sort of wrong-headed adorableness, to the point where the character’s self-righteousness can almost be admired.
Anthony Mackey is equally effective, though the script never cuts far enough into the meat of the motivations for his wrongdoing. That honor is reserved primarily for Dwayne Johnson who, after a decade-plus of hinting his capability, finally delivers his first truly great performance. Paul Doyle, this disconnected, emotionally stunted man with a heart of gold, is so astonishingly misguided that he becomes the weakest link in this aluminum chain. There’s never a scene where the actor’s not completely dialed-in, operating on charisma that’s been missing from his larger Hollywood body of work.
The supporting cast matches up effectively, with fine turns from actors Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson and Rob Coddry. Shalhoub’s continued insistence on inserting funny voices to his character work on the big screen is evidenced again here, as subtlety proves to be an accommodation he reserves primarily for television.
Bay displays an insistence on harkening back to Bad Boys 2, going so far as to lift an entire shot of the Miami sign wholesale from Gain’s predecessor. What it leads me to believe, and what I think we all kind of knew already, is that Bay phones it in when the material doesn’t engage him. Here, the controversial director seems artistically reinvigorated, to the point of homaging or at least drawing awareness back to the last time he was inspired. The visual style is much more akin to early Bay, perhaps merged with the playfulness of Tony Scott’s over-saturated frameworks. I’ve long believed that the grand legacy of Scott’s later career would be insisting upon and cultivating a style that’d be perfected by other filmmakers in later years, that again seems to be the case here. Scott invented a very real, hyper-stylized form, but never fine-tuned or justified its existence in his own narratives. Movies like Pain & Gain prove that we’re seeing that fine-tuning happening now on account of like-minded artists.
I’ll settle for three MORE Transformers films if Bay can pull another Pain & Gain out of his ass every few years. Dude will always be able to direct the shit out of an action sequence (even as it means nothing and has no meaningful story behind it), but a filmmaker of his unique talents belongs nowhere near kid properties like the Autobots. Even as he’s gearing up for a fourth go’round with Optimus and pals, I sincerely hope he returns soon to the work that inspires him.
I don’t always like Michael Bay’s films, but I respect any artist who makes their craft appear as effortless as Bay is capable. The director of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has delivered his masterpiece. Drink down that protein shake of truth and decide if that’s something you want to see, because Pain & Gain is the goods.