Film Discussion

Pain & Gain – Throwback 10

For all the films Michael Bay is known for, could Pain & Gain be the quintessential Bay movie? One decade on and this piece of chaos feels increasingly like the end point of American Exceptionalism. All the while the film, loaded with Bay’s mannerisms and tics, progressively feels more like the film he should be noted for.

All the ugly, brazen, aesthetics are featured. Yet they aid this cruel, yet morbidly amusing feature in a way no other Bay movie does. The juvenile delinquency that litters much of Bay’s work truly finds its place here. As does the vehement patriotic love of country.  This is a true story so outrageous, that even despite the film’s inaccuracies, one should still be shocked at the fact as well as the fiction. A film that is as distasteful as the crimes that are committed. Pain & Gain is an important film in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. There will be Blood for Bros.

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Based on a disturbing true story, Pain & Gain bodyslams us back into the mid-90s. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a fruitless bodybuilder and gym manager striving for the American Dream. After falling enviously of the fulfilled life of obnoxious franchise owner Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), Lugo enlists the inadequate talents of two bodybuilders; Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), to aid him in incapacitating and taking Kershaw hostage. Lugo hopes to drain the sandwich store owner for all his worth, in the vain hope of living the so-called good life he thinks he deserves. Alas, the kidnapping leads the muscle-bound trio down a grotesque criminal path, fuelled by kidnapping lies and murder.

After the ridiculously loud, tremendously long Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) Bay said he desired to make a “smaller film”. Something that revealed the “real” Michael Bay maybe? An amusing idea when we consider his bombastic filmography. What does tiny Bayhem constitute exactly?

Photo credit: Jaimie Trueblood – © 2013 Paramount Pictures.

Reviews which noted the idea that Bay would be constructing something smaller and more intimate only sounded like they were kidding themselves. A smaller Bay movie may have a shorter run time. Or a tighter budget perhaps. But a Michael Bay on a smaller scale was never going to be an arthouse dish. Shockingly, the likes of Mark Kermode felt that Pain & Gain would be that far removed from his previous endeavours. Nothing in his body of work, large or small, suggests the filmmaker would be aiming for an intimate Palme d’Or affair.

To the wrong person, Pain & Gain is a cinematic crime against nature. An ugly film fuelled by loathsome dumbbells. All played for perverse laughs by a director who Megan Fox once described as wanting to be like Hitler on his sets. It is a crime story which is as jarring as the scorching highly concentrated colour palette the film uses. While a Rotten Tomato score should not be the main indicator of taste, it is of no surprise that both the film’s Tomatometer and audience score hover around a 50/50 split.

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However, the mixology is perfect in ways only some can imagine. The excesses and fetishes of its director collide successfully with the toxic subject matter. Pain & Gain taps into our transactional culture in a way that other crime films try to avoid. Pain & Gain shows off Bay’s work as a formalist at its apex. Tony Zhou’s infamous video essay suggested that the vulgar auteur lacks the ability to clarify the scope and scale of telling a story. Yet this plot of pumped up, doped up, lying bodybuilders is perfect for a filmmaker who seems to converse in explosions. This is a world viewed completely in terms of garish size and perceived material value.

Bay accurately captures what these villains consider valuable. Their swollen muscles fill the frame. Lugo, a softminded gym rat, scatters references to mafioso films, with little awareness of why they are the men they are. I don’t think the likes of Scarface would be spending time in seminars held by infamous infomercial stars. Such conferences only further highlight Lugo’s narrow-minded version of success. The ravenous need to “get a pump”, particularly after committing a criminal act, suggests addiction. Soon after, their desire to work on their muscle after a moment of violence becomes a coping mechanism. Meanwhile, the film’s cinematography, often set at a low angle, accentuates the warped sense of dominance each character wishes to exhibit.

Photo credit: Robert Zuckerman – © 2013 Paramount Pictures.

Bay’s characters have never been “good” even as heroes. Many of his previous protagonists don’t ring true due to the lack of responsibility to them within the narrative. One of the reasons the child-like leads in The Island (2005) almost work is mostly down to the fact that they’re meant to appear flat. Meanwhile, the likes of Bad Boys 2 (2003) and Transformers (2005) have characters laboured with the kind of negative stereotypes that would have more sensitive members of the film Twitteratti clambering for a safe space.

To be honest, Bay doesn’t seem to “get” good guys. They never seem to be characters of any true virtue. Do they have to be? No, but it goes a little way into understanding why the psychopaths in Pain & Gain are amongst his most effective. No longer must the filmmaker pretend he wants nice guys as his protags. He has some real Bad Boys. Ones which fit the in-your-face style of his filmmaking.

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This macho true crime text becomes a screaming defiant wail of a certain type of American masculinity and capitalism. Everyone has a price, and if your worth doesn’t match up, you’re disposable. Lugo claims “I have no sympathy for people who squander their gifts. It’s sickening. It’s worse than sickening. It’s unpatriotic.” Yet, the victims of his crimes, despite their obnoxiousness, are self-built and productive. For all of Lugo’s posturing, he possesses no skills of his own to create success. Lugo and his criminal buddies drown in their self-delusion and lies.

Coming in three years before the political sea change of 2016, Lugo is a perfect example of the incoming Trumpian post-factual political era. Where convincing big talk is the only thing needed to achieve accomplishment. Coming out in the same year as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Pain & Gain helped reveal that hard work means nothing. What matters is posing. The image truly is everything.

Pain & Gain was released in the UK on 26th April 2013.

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