When I walked out of the theater after seeing Pain & Gain I had a hard time trying to decide what I had just watched and whether or not I even liked it. It’s by far the strangest, craziest movie I’ve seen yet this year (full disclosure: I have yet to see Spring Breakers), it’s long, it’s abrasive, and completely unsubtle. However, now that I’ve had some time to think about it I’ve decided that what I’ve just watched is something that’s just a little bit incredible.
Pain & Gain tells the true story of Daniel Lugo and his scheme to pursue his own twisted ideal of the American Dream. Lugo (played by Mark Wahlberg) is a bodybuilder and personal trainer working for the Sun Gym in Miami, FL. He has worked since childhood to be in peak physical condition as well as working to transform the Sun Gym into a “muscle Mecca” featuring ripped men and busty women. However, despite his successes physically, he’s never achieved the financial success he feels he deserves. After all, Daniel is a “doer” and he believes that if he puts something into life, life owes him something back (philosophies inspired by Lugo’s favorite motivational speaker Jonny Wu), and with all he’s put into his fitness and the Sun Gym he feels he deserves as much as anyone else has. To make matters worse, a wealthy business man named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) with a serious superiority complex has joined the gym. In Lugo’s mind the fact that someone so rotten can be so successful is an affront to the American Dream, and there’s certainly no way someone like that could have become that successful without being a criminal. Surely he is far more deserving of that success than Kershaw is so with the help of fellow body builders Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) he kidnaps and tortures Kershaw to get him to sign away his wealth. However, and as you may have already gathered, Lugo and his gang are far more brawn than brain and though the do successfully acquire Kershaw’s property they botch the execution on just about every aspect of their ill-conceived scheme.
Michael Bay is perhaps one of the most maligned popular directors of our time, a status which has only been exacerbated by his involvement with the Transformers films (movies that Bay himself openly despised). I make no argument that Bay is a good filmmaker, he is completely without subtlety, his movies are chaotic and often incoherent, and his characters and their actions are disconnected from any level of humanity; that being said, there’s a very specific type of movie that benefits from Bay’s borderline sociopathic style, and Pain & Gain is exactly that type of movie. Based on a series of articles published in Miami New Times in 1999, this is one of those stories that is almost too crazy to believe and Bay absolutely relishes in the over-the-top nature of it (and, to be fair, I’m sure there is a decent amount of embellishment that took place in the film). This is a story that is completely off-the-walls insane and Bay’s style is perfectly matched to it.
Much like the main characters of the story, the whole film is imbued with a tone that is equal parts charming and completely nasty. The actions of just about every character in the film are completely repugnant, and there’s not a single one of them that you ever feel compelled to root for, yet there’s a certain pleasure that is derived from watching them destroy their own lives and each other’s. There are no heroes in this film; there aren’t even anti-heroes, there is only the worst humanity has to offer and Bay captures their destruction with an absolutely misanthropic glee.
Mark Wahlberg’s Lugo is wonderfully deluded as the self-elected leader of the group and plays his role as essentially an adult-sized 230 pound baby. Wahlberg plays Lugo’s idiocy with absolute sincerity; you never doubt that, despite the insanity of it all, Lugo thinks his plan is fool proof. Likewise Mackie plays Doorbal with an absolutely unwavering dedication to Lugo’s madness. Shalhoub is also entertaining as Kershaw, especially when the abuse he’s sustained from Lugo and his gang has left him nearly incapable of speaking, yet he still carries on lashing out at anyone and everyone around him. Dwayne Johnson, though, is the one who really steals the show. As I’ve mentioned before, I like Johnson a lot and think he has a great deal of charisma and natural charm, and he is fantastic in Pain & Gain. He pulls off playing an over-the-top character without merely feeling like a collection of clichés and of all the awful characters in the film he is by far the most sympathetic. A giant beefcake who knows that what he’s doing is horrible yet is too pitiful to do anything about it. This is a career-best performance for Johnson, and should dismiss any argument that he doesn’t have what it takes to be a movie star.
These characters are all terrible human beings, but they never come across as cartoon characters. There’s actually a surprising amount of characterization in this film and these big, beefy idiots work on a level that has more merit than broad tropes. I’ll reiterate that Michael Bay is incapable of being subtle so you can’t expect a ton of nuance, but there’s enough character exploration to keep them compelling beyond surface-level silliness.
In fact, there aren’t really a lot of negative things I can say about the film. The biggest issue here goes back to the classic Bay characteristic of extreme excess. The movie feels a bit long at times and some of the humor is distasteful enough to be somewhat detrimental, but in general Bay has succeeded in finding a story that is perfectly suited to his particular skillset. This is a film that’s big, loud, nasty, and unapologetically cynical. Some people will hate it for that, but even as an eternal optimist who loves nuanced storytelling I can’t deny that there’s an incredible base pleasure to this film.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this Bay’s masterpiece, but it is a very good movie. This is the type of film that Bay needs to be making, and Pain & Gain is a movie that no one but Bay could have made quite like this.