In his new film, Pain & Gain, director Michael Bay may have found his cinematic soul mate. The flashy, sun-baked auteur, who directed such gems as Armageddon, The Island and the Transformers trilogy, finally merged to a story with all the staples he loves. It is set in his Bad Boys’ hometown of Miami. It features beefy musclemen driving fast cars, living fast lives. And for a filmmaker who supposedly discovered Megan Fox by making her wash his car in a bikini and once said that he cast Kate Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor because she “wasn’t too beautiful,” now at-long-last he has an excuse to dress his leading women like strippers. What could go wrong?
Creatively speaking, the biggest hurdle is Bay has chosen to semi-leave his blockbuster action oeuvre for one of “comedy” and “drama.” I use those terms loosely because, much as when Bay dabbled in romance and historical tragedy with Pearl Harbor, he once again misses the mark for genres outside his wheelhouse. Unless you loved the “robot balls” in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, there is little to laugh at in this star-studded muck. All the women are either strippers or overweight and must be condescended to via Mark Wahlberg’s voiceover. Ha. A fictional pastor turns out to be a live-action version of Herbert the Pedophile from Family Guy and tries to molest the Rock. Hehe. Both ruggedly ripped heroes share an unmanly hug. LOL!
But the real reason the whole project feels so dirtily uneven is that it’s not the stuff of comedy. As the film proudly reminds you several times throughout, this is based on a true story. One of murder, extortion, torture and extreme violence. You get the sense that Bay knows how lurid this material is when he embraces its darkest elements in the third act. Yet, I wonder if he realizes that he’s the only one laughing.
Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) is just a muscle-bound hunk with a passion for the American dream. He adores the rags-to-riches story of Scarface and believes in hard work almost as much as he believes in physical perfection. He is such a believer that he is humbled when he gets a second chance at Sun Gym. Hired as a personal trainer by John Mese (Rob Corddry), despite having served 15-months in prison for scamming Florida seniors out of their pensions, Lugo quickly reinvents the gym into the sexiest spot in Miami Beach, in the process working his way up to manager. Yet it isn’t enough; not when scumbags like Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) walk away with millions from their Schlotzsky’s empires.
Thus with an eye on the prize, Lugo recruits fellow trainer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and a just-out-of-prison associate named Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson). Together, they kidnap Kershaw (after several “hilarious” failed attempts) and torture him for a month until he signs away all his money, assets and home to them. He is forced to call his wife and business partners to tell them he has run away with a hot girlfriend and leaves his life at their mercy. It could have been the perfect crime if they did not suck so bad at killing him. Though it certainly is not from a lack of trying; they booze him up, crash his car, light him on fire and eventually run over his face.
With Kershaw seemingly out of the picture, they move into his abandoned home and live the high life. They pass around naïve strippers with stories about working for the CIA and start up a neighborhood watch for their high-class neighbors. They finally got that American dream they deserve. So much so, they do not even notice that Kershaw has hired Detective Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) to prove his fantastic story of batty bodybuilders trying to kill him. Plus, the money is starting to run out and there is a phone-sex businessman down the street JUST ASKING FOR IT.
There is a great, terrible story of greed, ambition and horror in these true events. Daniel Lugo and friends really did kidnap an individual (not named Kershaw) and ruined his life before pathetically trying to kill him. They also murdered several other people, cut up their bodies with chainsaws and then barbecued their severed fingers on a grill. It is a harrowing criminal story. But Bay, always seemingly out of his depth when the image is not shaking between cuts every half second, bizarrely reimagines this carnage as a black comedy with Lugo as some kind of American hero. They certainly soften the image of everyone involved. There is no mention of Lugo’s real-life wives who he was cheating on with that stripper. He is also not seen scamming Medicare while “making America a better place” by murdering other rich people. Hell, they conflate some of the worst participants into a charmingly grinning Johnson. While reducing Lugo’s gang of six to three makes sense from a narrative standpoint, Paul Doyle stands in for a Born Again Christian who was a reluctant member of the scheme, as well as Jorge Delgado, who in reality planned the murder of “Kershaw,” because they were once business partners.
Yet, here is a film and filmmaker glorifying these terrible people because when the camera captures their glistening six-pack abs in a swimming pool, they practically sparkle. For all his visual flair, Bay’s talents are strictly superficial. By glossing over this freak show with the splatter of a perpetually sunlit afterglow and buxom babes in bikinis partying at Sun Gym’s swimming hole (in reality it was a gym rat hangout), he is challenging not only his usual critics, but also logic itself. If he adds his slick sheen and lusty eye to a story about a couple of movie stars surrounded by fat, Gay and Black jokes, then audiences will always have a riotous time.
Supposedly, there is some sort of an Occupy Wall Street, anti-elite window-dressing to all this. But just as the Second World War and the tragedy of 2,400 dead Americans escaped Bay’s attempt at soap opera and slow-mo shots of Ben Affleck’s chin, it feels tacked-on here by a filmmaker who could care less. How can a movie about Wahlberg and Johnson driving a Lamborghini down Miami highways being crosscut with parties at the strip club be a true indictment on the wealthy? The film’s Lugo whines about not paying rent, even though he already has a top floor apartment with panoramic views of Miami before Kershaw has broken.
Bay has no interest in that 99 percent crap. His movies are an ideological rejection of it. So, he goes through the motions to set-up his Robin Hood dynamic. Bay never shows Kershaw’s wife and children onscreen (who he was forced to talk to and who wept in reality), but does have him say some snide remark about poor people only eating salad. Kershaw even wears the Star of David around his neck in an early scene, just so the stereotype is buried in deep. Once kidnapped, he makes a knock about high school graduates who don’t go to college being losers. Hate him yet? Good. Let’s get back to shots of that Miami sunset and Wahlberg’s glittering muscles.
Michael Bay is not a hack. He knows exactly what his movies trade in and usually delivers it well. Like all his films, Pain & Gain is visually eye-popping and fun to look at. Also, since he only inserts two semi-fictional chases into the flick, there are not many opportunities to “fuck the frame” (his words about his dizzying editing style). Still, the material is woefully misjudged and leaves the uneasy feeling of swimming in a luxurious pool that is the color yellow. Of course, that could just be the lighting.