After nearly burning himself out on three gargantuan Transformers movies in a row, it’s telling that Michael Bay’s idea of a smaller, intimate movie is one that still manages to cram the ridiculously muscular physiques of Mark Walberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie into a single frame and contains more crass worship of personal possessions and drug use than Tony Montana’s office.
Based on an outlandish, but actual true story (as the movie gleefully can’t help itself from telling us repeatedly) about a trio of air headed bodybuilders who decided to illegally snag themselves a piece of the American dream via kidnapping, extortion and, eventually, murder, Pain & Gain had been a passion project for the notoriously restraint-free Bay for yonks and after his lucrative dalliance with the populace of Cybertron, he finally got to realise it – but did the years of waiting pay off?
It’s 1994 and over enthusiastic ex-con/personal trainer Danny Lugo is tired of making the lives of other, richer people better through endless reps and exaggerated pep-talks and cooks up a plan to try and steal all the worldly possessions of abrasive businessman Victor Kershaw. Being a mixture of being dangerously ambitious and worryingly dumb (he describes America as the most buffed, pumped up country in the world and thinks fat people as unpatriotic), he recruits fellow gym worker and steroidal impotence sufferer, Adrian Doorbal and born again fellow ex-con Paul Doyle to carry out his scheme to fleece Kershaw of every shred of bling they can.
After a couple of false starts – the trio are hardly a collection of criminal masterminds – the group desperately manage to fail upward and actually succeeds in extorting Kershaw’s house and riches through a series of other, smaller, making-it-up-on-the-fly scams and torture. Eventually, the three lunkheads realise that to make this deal fullproof, they’re going to have to kill their prisoner, but after even fucking this up despite faking a car accident, setting him on fire and even running over his head with a van, the three swole crooks manage to leave a vengeful Kershaw broken, but alive. However, despite scoring the lifestyles they’ve always dreamed of, the trio almost immediately begin to implode thanks to both Doorbal and Doyle blowing through their cut thanks to a mixture of dick operations and a herculean coke habit, Lugo reluctantly has to concede to trying to pull off another scam, this time focusing on a local porn king.
However, this time things don’t go anywhere near as smoothly (and they didn’t even go that smoothly the first time) and Lugo, Doorbal and Doyle find themselves up to their thick necks in murder, not to mention being scoped out by a persistent PI that Kershaw has managed to hire.
A cursory glance at Pain & Gain suggests that a more perfect vehicle for Michael Bay simply couldn’t exist, with all the lush photography, far-fetched plot, crude humor and a near fetishistic view of wealth that afflicts his other projects being a veritable boon in this case. For the most part, you’d be bang on the money as the director’s much lambasted style does indeed find a comfortable home in a movie that’s supposed to be a grotesque parody to a salute to idiotic ambition with Bay dialing down the scattered gunfire, deranged car chases and numerous explosions (somewhat) in order to produce a garish black comedy that’s actually supposed to find dark laughs in utterly unbelievable behaviour.
The same goes for Mark Wahlberg, who channels his glassy-eyed, breathless optimism schtick nicely into a man obsessed with claiming with the finer things in life merely and who is willing to work for it, but not in a way that’s anyway legal. It’s to the actors credit that he takes a man loaded with as much entitlement as he is steroids and makes him weirdly likable and the same goes for Dwayne Johnson’s gargantuan, born again simpleton (“Jesus Christ himself has blessed me with many gifts! One of them is knocking someone the fuck out!”) and Anthony Mackie’s breast milk drinking, limp dicked weirdo as all three fire out bizarre lines as the movie gets ever more insane. The supporting cast is insanely stacked too, featuring such faces as Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson and Ken Jeong popping up to overact as much as they can.
However, in a baffling twist of fate, Michael Bay somehow still proves to be the problem here. “How on earth can that be?” I hear you cry, “Didn’t you just say that this story is practically perfect for the man?”. Well, yes I did, but the fact of the matter is that this crazy, over the top, crime caper is ultimately filmed in exactly the same way Bay’s shot literally everything he’s made which weirdly defuses the anarchic chaos he’s trying to achieve. Now, is someone else had made the film in Bay’s style as a way to further stick pins in the shallow way of life the movie mocks, then maybe we would have been talking, but considering the Baron of Bayhem once shot a movie about Pearl Harbor in almost exactly the same way, it does sort of unravel the satire. Also counting against the movie is the fact that the movie’s two hour and nine minute running time feels almost double that thanks to the director’s continuing ability to have the whole film rush around at the continual pace of a house cat experiencing a 3am freak out. The result is not one, not two, but at least six duelling voiceover narations, lots of screaming and typically gonzo jokes about breast implants, explosive diarrhoea and Doyle’s decision to grill the incriminating fingerprints off a pair of severed hands on a barbeque outside in full view of everyone because he doesn’t like the smell and while a lot of the movie is legitimately funny in a sledgehammer sort of way, it’s also tremendously exhausting, long since running out of gas before the entire, fucked up tale is wrapped up with the standard “where are they now” title cards. Most strange of all, however, is the movie’s inability to decide how it feels about its lead character’s behaviour and a weirdly somber ending almost invites us to salute these misguided morons despite the bodies and carnage they’ve left in their wake. “Is this all for me?” gasps a genuinely impressed Lugo as he sees an army of cops waiting for him as he’s finally brought in – but if the flick was shooting for irony, it needs better aim.
A far better film than people give it credit for, Bay’s epic ode to idiots with dreams higher than their IQ is still beached nonetheless by the fact that for all the crazy shit the characters pull in this true story, it still isn’t that much crazier than stuff people when compared to an average Michael Bay film (the only thing that truly separates Lugo, Doyle and Doorbal from Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett antics in Bad Boys II is literally the possession of police badges), meaning that the director’s long awaited shot a biting satire, just feels like another “Michael Bay film”.
Some gain, mostly pain.