Cinematic Oddities: Pain & Gain and a Defense of Michael Bay


Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg, and Anthony Mackie in Pain & Gain.

Back in December 2012, I saw the first promotional trailer for Pain & Gain, Michael Bay’s latest cinematic outing. I’m usually lukewarm on Michael Bay at best, but when I saw the trailer, something in my lizard brain said, “Yes. Yes, I want to see that. I want to see that a lot.”

To me, the potential of Pain & Gain was crystal clear. I was already familiar with the real life Sun Gym crime ring, which served as the true-life basis for the film. I also already recognized Michael Bay as an incredibly adept technical director, who could be served well if he were actually given good material to work with. Some stunningly batshit crazy things happened during the Sun Gym crimes, and I was instantly piqued by the possibility of unleashing a batshit crazy Michael Bay on the batshit crazy of the Sun Gym crimes. The weirdness of the Sun Gym crimes would perhaps be best served by the Coen brothers, but Michael Bay has that polish of hyper-masculine obnoxiousness that would be useful in crafting a film about a crime ring made of bodybuilders amid the pastel-painted cultural desert of 1990s Miami. This was possibly a magical marriage of material and director.

Michael Bay hasn’t made a good film in a long time. Indeed, you could argue that he’s never made a good film, depending how you feel about the ridiculously over-the-top brainlessness that is Armageddon or The Rock. However, every one of his films is a masterful technical achievement. People in the film industry stare in awe at the things Michael Bay manages to capture with a camera, because a lot of that crap is really hard to do. There’s a reason that Armageddon is an entry in the Criterion Collection, alongside masterpieces by Francois Truffaut and Fritz Lang. I’ve long said that Michael Bay is the world’s greatest second unit director; his main failing has been that he’s been in the main director’s seat all this time.

But Pain & Gain? It had potential to change that.

It didn’t. Not quite.

But, man, I still loved the shit out of it.

Pain & Gain is flawed. It spins out of control by the end. The script could use some trimming. Parts of the film make you feel that Michael Bay should be a poster child for unexamined straight white male privilege, while others hint that he might actually be making fun of himself… but you are never quite sure.

And yet the vast majority of it mostly works, simply from sheer audacity, craziness, inertia, and obnoxious energy. Exactly what I’d hoped for.

The story of Pain & Gain is tremendously streamlined from the original true story. The very large crime ring has been distilled into a trio of bodybuilders, led by Mark Wahlberg, whose character is driven by undaunted lust for The American Dream. His cohorts are played by Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, who are both wooed into lives of crime by Wahlberg’s ambition. They have plans and passion… but not much for brains. There is a lot of joy in seeing these three men, bulked up into steroidal caricatures of their normal bodies, earnestly bumbling through their grand plans. This is the heart of the dark comedy that ensues.

The grand plans start with kidnapping a rich, somewhat nasty businessman played by Tony Shaloub. Of course, nothing quite goes right, especially since Shaloub’s character is both smarter and meaner than all three of them.

The film’s plot spreads quickly across many more characters and increasingly absurd (and yet still mostly true) situations. There is even one point near the end of the film where text pops onto the screen that reminds us that yes, this is something that really happened. There are severed limbs and toy dogs and lawnmowers and breast implants and those great big beautiful slow-motion shots of the American flag that only Michael Bay seems to capture right.

It is strange to say this about a Michael Bay film, but I think I enjoyed the film’s characters the most. Not every character pops off the screen, but the ones that do are great. One great pleasure of the dramatis personae is a very funny, zaftig woman (played by Rebel Wilson) who specializes in treating male sexual dysfunction. (Her weight is never really mentioned in the film, except a passing comment that Anthony Mackie’s character is into larger ladies. Since Bay’s usual view of women seems to be lithe and bikini-clad, this is a great surprise.) Also a strange joy is Dwayne Johnson’s character, who plays a joy-brimmed, naive, born-again Christian who is nevertheless the first one to swandive into a mountain of cocaine and women when the money arrives. (Johnson’s incredible charisma is used to great effect here.) Oh, and Ed Harris shows up later on. (ED HARRIS.)

The net effect of all this is a big snowball of crazy that careens along for most of the film, before it simply just crumbles apart earlier than it should have. It’s a big, beautiful mess of a black comedy, and I love it.

By the way, in case you don’t believe that Michael Bay can be self-aware of his own clichés, check this out. It’s AWESOME.

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