starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris
screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, based on the articles by Pete Collins
directed by Michael Bay
by Angelo Muredda A man does a stomach crunch in mid-air, suspended off the armpit of a muscleman logo that's spray-painted onto the side of a gym. Is there a more quintessential Michael Bay image than the opening shot of Pain & Gain? The only serious contender comes later on, in a slow-motion tableau of the same bro, Mark Wahlberg's personal trainer-cum-murderer Danny Lugo, sailing over the windshield of an SUV, propelled by the debris from a flying fruit stand. When your story doesn't have any Autobots, I guess you just have to improvise with your surroundings to get all your primary colours in. To say that the radioactive pop palette and abs-fetishism is familiar is an understatement, but it's the thematic material and belaboured telling of it that makes Pain & Gain a perfect storm of Bay. Temporarily freed from the restraints of a battling-robot franchise, he's allowed to make his most purely ideological statement yet in the form of a (fact-based) story about three idiots pursuing their warped vision of the Horatio Alger myth--which happily coincidences with Bay's.
Based on a series of eponymous articles by Pete Collins, the film follows the cresting then crashing fortunes of a trio of Miami bodybuilders who conspire to get rich off the back of a wealthy kidnapping victim. Lugo, a college dropout and douchebag reflection of Magic Mike, grows tired of seeing his religion of fitness soiled by the soft bodies he's tasked with molding at the gym, and recruits fellow muscle-head Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie, utterly wasted) and Jesus-fearing ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to stage a heist so they can have the wealth they deserve. Their mark is Lugo's client Victor Kerhsaw (Tony Shalhoub), a self-made Columbian-Jewish deli king who refuses to die even after they've robbed him of everything he's worth and mock-executed him a half-dozen times. Enter Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris), a private detective Kerhsaw puts on the scent of his former captors, now living it up in his mansion in indiscreet fashion.
The obvious reference point is Fargo, given the true-crime ethos (however forged) and the wayward kidnapping. But as you might expect, Bay's moralism is very different from the Coen Brothers'. What starts as a charming if unsubtle satire of Lugo's insatiable desire for material goods he hasn't earned--spelled out in voiceovers that invariably cite the "American Dream" any time someone stands in front of a flag--soon degenerates into another of Bay's overstuffed paeans to winners who go home to fuck the prom queen, as Sean Connery put it in The Rock. If they eventually get arrested once they've collected their trophy, in this case, we're meant to read it as all the more disheartening.
Bay can't help himself, lingering with sympathetic disgust on the fat bodies that Lugo disdains, and there's the seed of something substantial in this identification with the hero's pathological worldview. You wish Bay had the nerve to follow that grotesque impulse and its implicit critique to its logical end, rather than pitching this material as comedy. An early interrogation between Lugo and Kershaw may be the closest we'll ever get to a Bay confessional about the fascist politics of his films: Lugo oozes contempt towards his immigrant superior and hostage, who he accuses, only when safely behind a rudimentary mask and phoney accent, of taking riches from working class "native sons" like himself. The otherwise-unlikeable Kershaw gets his own stray voiceover narration in response, where he rebuts his captor's ethnocentric hatred with a settlement narrative that lays a deeper claim to Miami than Lugo's. Interesting enough, though Bay doesn't have much patience for his own auto-critique, following these candid moments with an endlessly protracted, Grand Guignol conclusion depicting the trio's engagement in increasingly grisly bad behaviour. This is Bay doing Ray Liotta's delusional mania in Goodfellas, with none of the consequence or rooted interest.
What's most disappointing is how this toxic bloat follows the relative fleetness of an opening act that suggests Bay has an untapped flair for classical storytelling. Although he's been generously reappraised over time as a cinematic "action painter" (painting in car parts and blood squibs, to be sure), what impresses here isn't Bay's visual signature, which frankly lacks consistency, but his formal playfulness in getting us into Lugo's cracked head. If Lugo's subjectivity is the most developed, it's Johnson's repressed missionary Doyle who leaves the most indelible mark. Johnson's made a career for himself in recent years of grounding tired franchises with his stoic mug. It's nice to see him play someone with moral dimensions, even if they're wildly out of synch with the movie he's in.