For a director whose movies rake in billions of dollars, Michael Bay is pretty decisive among film fans. His handling of the Transformers franchise has infuriated some, bored others, and entertained many judging by the box office. No matter what kind of story he’s tackled he hasn’t shown restraint and doesn’t seem to want to let up on that front, with Pain & Gain, which for me is Bay’s best film in a long while, maybe ever.
There’s a general consensus that Bay’s best is somewhere between The Rock and Bad Boys, but the pitch black humour of Pain & Gain proves to be a memorable sensory experience that rivals them both.
This is a post-modern tale of capturing the American Dream, from the viewpoint of a disillusioned and demented man born on a steady diet of bullshit and movies. The kind of guy who earnestly looks up to the characters from Scarface and The Godfather. Mark Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo completely lacks self-awareness, and is dogged in his pursuit of what he feels is owed to him. Which in this story’s case is the wealth of another man, a smarmy guy called Victor Kershaw (played by Tony Shalhoub).
Roping in fellow body-building enthusiasts, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) Michael Bay orchestrates a descent into madness. With Mackie’s oddball dealing with a pressing medical issue, and Johnson’s well-meaning ex-con trying to stay on a straight path with the help of religion, the trio convince themselves that a mission involving kidnap and torture is the best thing they need to do with their lives.
It’s an understatement to say shit goes wrong. It goes wrong spectacularly, and it’s because the combined IQ of these men is far below of that needed to pull off anything of this magnitude. The humour is created by the chemistry between the men, but the stark reality of what they’re doing is never brushed aside by Bay, it’s always quite clear that what is occurring is madness.
The film features such insane bouts of cruelty and oblivious disregard for human decency that the movie has to reiterate to the audience via a title card that this is based on a true story. However this Slate article neatly summarises what truths the film leaves out and the fictions it creates to tell an entertaining story.
Allusions to the legendary Coen Brothers are apparent in the template of criminals bumbling their way through a caper, but with Bay’s penchant for ramping everything to its extreme, there’s no time for subtlety or contemplation of how people can end up this way. Bay’s remit is: this shit happened, it’s so insane you have to laugh.
Well, it’s hard to laugh when you know the real story behind the criminal activities that occurred, that people actually died, and to mine their deaths for humour is pretty bleak. It was definitely something that was bubbling away at the back of my mind, but Bay’s filter of reality is so out there, that I was able to judge the movie on its own and not a re-enactment of real events. Slate’s article highlights how many changes were made to adapt Pete Collin’s original article about the incident to the big screen.
Putting aside these details, the film is worth it for Wahlberg and Johnson’s portrayal of men who set out to steal wealth and get high on it to disastrous results. Dwayne Johnson is the heart of the film, every moment he’s on screen is cause for laughter, his comic timing has been honed after over a decade of acting on the big screen.
Pain & Gain will not be to everyone’s liking, they’ll find it garish, shallow and ugly. I found it a funny, visceral crime caper buoyed by Wahlberg and Johnson. Visually striking and with a bombastic grinding soundtrack, it utilises the best tropes of the genre to tell a surreal story worthy of the black comedy tag. It’s a shame the truth was altered so much in its transition to the big screen, but considering how ugly the events were, maybe it’s for the best. Bay has morphed the truth into his own take on the waking nightmare of the American Dream.