Pain & Gain, murky morals and the American Dream

Is Michael Bay's black crime comedy a comment on the American Dream? Matt takes a detailed look at a morally murky film...

Note: this article contains Pain & Gain spoilers. 

“This is the American Dream,” whispers a voice in the song playing over the end credits, as neon text informs us that this is “A Film by Michael Bay”. 

It’s not unreasonable, I don’t think, to take this as a less than subtle prompt as to the theme of Pain & Gain. It would hardly be appropriate for the theme to be subtle, though. We’re talking about a film that tells the true story of chemically imbalanced, murderous body builders and their warped, modern and ultra-violent take on the American Dream. 

The American Dream is the ideal that everyone in the USA is created equal, and that if they work hard they will achieve upward mobility. This is an alluring idea for potential immigrants (USA has been described as having been founded on immigration). Ominously, Pain & Gain is a film about an American gang robbing, torturing and killing wealthy immigrants. 

Ad – content continues below

The American Dream has changed over time. Some would argue that it now bears more resemblance to the California Dream. Described as the idea, after the gold rush, of the pursuit of instant wealth, this certainly seems more in line with the aspirations we see presented around us in modern society. Prime time television talent shows allow people to compete to become a big name pop star. No climbing up through the music industry, just a brief spell on television and then instant success. I say this not in a critical way; indeed, I won my spot on Den Of Geek through their reality series All These Nerds.

This isn’t to say that in the modern age people are unwilling to work for success. It’s more a suggestion that earning proportionate success through hard work is no longer the dream.

Daniel Lugo is the American Dream

Mark Wahlberg is great in Pain & Gain. He plays Daniel Lugo, a bodybuilder who works as a personal trainer at Sun Gym. Lugo is the great American salesman. He’s slick, he looks good, he’s charming and he’s telling you he can make you a lot of money, quickly. We see him charm and promise his way into a job at Sun Gym (insisting he’ll triple membership and design a new computer system) and working as a conman in a flashback sequence. Even his pitches of the kidnappings to the Sun Gym gang are fantastical, with promises of no killing and deserving victims.

Daniel Lugo’s American Dream is very modern. Very Californian. Frustrated with his life, he organises the kidnapping of a wealthy client. From there, he intends to beat signatures and information out of the man to allow Lugo to take ownership of everything he has. How’s that for upward mobility? This is pure greed on Lugo’s part. He concedes that they got greedy in attempting a second kidnapping, although this suggests that they started with the best of intentions. It’s always about having luxury items, like sports cars and big houses, which isn’t in line with having what everyone else has. It’s about feeling entitled, lying and taking what you want.

Lugo isn’t just using the American Dream to take advantage of others and to guide his actions. He’s a victim of it, too. To Lugo, he’s a hard worker. Just look at the bloody size of him – even with the aid of steroids, that’s the result of hard work. I lifted a weight once and found the experience exhausting. When Lugo is confronted with wealthy, successful people, it’s at his gym, where they inevitably can’t keep up with him. He’s working harder than them; where’s his fortune? Where’s his upward mobility? He also makes a mockery of the phrase ‘never shit a shitter’, because he finds himself utterly taken in by motivational speaker Johnny Wong, another man selling the new American Dream; the secrets to instant wealth and success. In fact, Wong disparages hard work as a means to getting by, insisting that grinding your way up is for suckers.

My interpretation of Pain & Gain is that the film’s central character, Daniel Lugo, represents the modern American Dream. He is a man who pursues immediate gratification and wealth using the modern American values of violence and ruthlessness.

Ad – content continues below

Michael Bay is the Emperor of Excess

I first took note of Pain & Gain after seeing the poster. The sheer size of the cast. They’re supermen. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who plays Doyle, is sporting a similar physique in his upcoming role as Hercules.

Everything in Pain & Gain is excess. The characters beat the American Dream out of smaller men using unnecessary cruelty and over-the-top violence. When Doyle cuts footloose and fancy free, he doesn’t have a drink, he goes on a cocaine rampage and blows his fortune. Even Daniel Lugo’s attempt at domestic life ends up with him driving a ride-in lawn mower – an excess of suburbia.

When Lugo is apprehended at the end of the film, he’s not just chased down by cars. He’s eventually caught by a fleet of helicopters after making his escape on a fancy boat.

Then there are the women of Pain & Gain. Stick thin strippers with giant, artificial breasts. God bless America. Strippers are of use to Lugo in his quest for the American Dream. Whether offering them free membership to attract more customers to Sun Gym or deceiving the daft as a raft Sorina, first by pretending to be a music video director (which in turn helps him to manipulate Doyle) and then by making her an active component in his kidnapping operations by tricking her into thinking that he works for the CIA. We also see several other women with perfectly crafted posteriors casually contorting themselves into all sorts of uncomfortable but visually engaging positions. 

Rebel Wilson plays the film’s second largest female role, Robin, and her wild sexual antics are a further excess of the film. I’m struggling to think of another movie that features a nunchuk as a marital aid. This is the first time I’ve really taken to Wilson, having seen her in a few things and not really ‘got’ it, with her scoring laughs almost every time she’s on screen.

So, Pain & Gain, then, is a film that explores using the American Dream to justify excess.

Ad – content continues below

Paul Doyle is not very bright

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson plays Paul Doyle, Lugo’s muscle. Doyle is a brilliant character and Johnson’s performance is my favourite of his career so far. Paul Doyle is so big he could use a human skull as a stress ball. He’s also so emotionally imbalanced that he actually might. He’s the human equivalent of an excitable dog. He’s trying his best to behave but he really wants to chase the ball. Here, ‘the ball’ is pummeling people unconscious, stealing and cocaine rampaging across Miami. 

It’s through Doyle that we get the film’s stance on religion. Doyle goes to a church as a vulnerable man. A priest takes him in, helps him and then tries to seduce him. It seems that no matter where Doyle turns, there’s someone there to take advantage of him, even the church. No way to interpret that as a comment on religion or America. Nope.

“It’s not your job to be as confused as Nigel” is a line from This Is Spinal Tap, but you could swap Nigel out for Doyle and the dialogue could be slotted into Pain & Gain. Doyle is the great American idiot. He stands out as the simplest of a gang of bunglers (indeed, for every one of their clumsy kidnapping plans they manage to blunder through they botch several others). When Doyle needs money, he robs a bank by clubbing a man carrying money and then running. He describes this robbery, which costs him a toe, as the result of planning.

Still, Doyle’s character is in keeping with the film’s overall theme of the modern American Dream. Doyle could be seen to represent idiot worship and reality television. Instant fame, a lot of money and the dumber you are the better we can exploit you. In fact, with his physique and intellect, he could easily pass for a cast member of the TV show Jersey Shore

Ed DuBois is a real American

Ed DuBois, played by Ed Harris, is a private investigator on the case of the Sun Gym gang. Contacted by their first victim, Victor Kershaw, DuBois is stunned by the actions of the Sun Gym gang, which feels like the response appropriate in-film response (unlike the police, who roll their eyes at Kershaw). 

DuBois is an important character in establishing the film’s theme. The oldest character in the film, he represents the American work ethic. He helps Kershaw in spite of Kershaw’s less than personable manner (he’s like someone from an internet comments section, but real), and does so in the face of great danger. He doesn’t need the money; he’s supposed to be at home with his lovely wife, enjoying his retirement. 

Ad – content continues below

The work he does helping Kershaw comes with no promise of payment, anyway, as the gang have taken everything Kershaw has. DuBois sets about using the skills he crafted over his career to outwit the Sun Gym gang. DuBois is a man of grit, integrity and intelligence. When asked why he’s helping Kershaw, he answers that the crimes committed by the Sun Gym gang were “UnAmerican”. It’s hard not to feel that he’d describe their version of the American Dream the same way. The character appears to be constantly on the brink of shaking his head sadly at everything around him.

Ed DuBois represents traditional American values. He should be enjoying the spoils of the American Dream. Instead, he’s working hard and trying to improve society. Unlike Lugo, who uses patriotic rhetoric to justify his selfish actions, DuBois is genuinely trying to make America a better place.

The warm down (stretching out some additional thoughts)

The third member of the Sun Gym gang is Adrian Doorbal, played by Anthony Mackie. Doorbal pursues the American Dream over the edge of a cliff time and again. A less established character than Doyle and Lugo, he suggests the second kidnapping after blowing all of his money. While I’m sure there’s a thematic meaning behind the character that I’ll discover another time, I felt the character’s most important role in the film was to demonstrate the consequences of the gang’s actions. Specifically, impotence, caused by steroid abuse (an early warning of the consequences of shortcutting that the gang fails to heed).

One of the reasons the film worked for me was Tony Shalhoub’s wonderful performance as the utterly unbearable Victor Kershaw. Kershaw is the first victim of the Sun Gym gang. They kidnap him, torture him until he signs over everything he owns and then they attempt to kill him. The escalating failure of their attempts to kill him plays as very funny in the film, although I found it one of the most shocking parts of the true story (I was stunned at how close the film was to the true events, given how outrageous and silly much of Pain & Gain is).

Yet, Kershaw is very difficult to sympathise with because he’s so obnoxious. He doesn’t deserve real life beating and torture (in fact, the real life equivalent has a different name and the articles that the film is based on make no mention of him being awful), but in terms of a character in a film, particularly a glossy, slick Michael Bay film, it doesn’t seem real.

Ad – content continues below

Another interesting element of the film is what we’ll accept happening to people we don’t like, and what we’ll tolerate from those we do. Characters in Pain & Gain are happy to accept Daniel Lugo, even though he’s doing terrible things, or coming to them in highly questionable circumstances, because he’s pleasant. Despite his actions, I liked him at times, too. Kershaw, conversely, is ignored by the police and regarded with scorn by his former employees due to his manner. In one instance, when Kershaw attempts to manipulate Doyle in order to escape, I actually found myself irritated with him for taking advantage of his violent captor. Of course, Kershaw attempting to escape is absolutely what he should be doing, and with the level of abuse he endured there’s little he could do that wouldn’t be justified. I think I just didn’t like the guy.

In a film where the main characters are bad guys who think they’re heroes, and the good guy is a supporting character who the main characters view as a bad guy, and the most dislikeable guy is a victim, who the hell is the villain in Pain & Gain? Is it American culture? Is it me for laughing? I don’t know. It’s not the Decepticons. That much I’m sure of.

[There’s another theory I considered when reflecting on Pain & Gain, and although it’s not one I think is true, the more cynical amongst you may get a kick out of it, so I’ll throw it in anyway. What if Pain & Gain is Michael Bay’s presentation of modern America? What if this is Bay saying to us “Look, this is America. What kind of films would you have me make for these people?” I don’t think this is the case. I think there are some subversive elements to what Michael Bay is saying in Pain & Gain, but I don’t believe that he is using the film to damn his entire country (just shine a light on some elements he doesn’t like) or to explain his career to us. That said, if he were saying this, the success of Transformers 3 (over $1bn at the box office alone) compared to Pain & Gain (less than $50m in the US) might suggest he has a point.]

To wrap this up, then, I went into Pain & Gain cautiously optimistic. I came out having had a fun night at the cinema watching a funny comedy (it played very well at the screening I attended) and with plenty to think about afterwards, which was not something I expected. If I had to pick a major flaw in Pain & Gain it would be that it’s too long. Unless that’s part of the excess theme they were exploring (it isn’t, but as far as cheeky retorts go I’d accept it). Honestly, this far into this article I’m not sure what business I have accusing something else of being too long.

Made for just $26m (lower than Kick-Ass 2 and Dredd), it’s not likely to be considered a flop, but without a huge return it’s not much of a hit either. I hope this doesn’t dissuade Bay from pursuing smaller films. I don’t begrudge him his big hit blockbuster movies, but if he wanted to follow each one up with a smaller project I’d keen to see him do so.

Pain & Gain is out now in UK cinemas.

Ad – content continues below