Before watching Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, I highly suggest reading the 3-part Miami New Times article on which it is based (conveniently compiled at this link). Such prior knowledge is in no way required to enjoy Bay’s film adaptation, but having read the original, factual account, I found myself constantly fascinated by the choices Bay and company made bringing the story to the screen. It is not the literal details of the crime that intrigue me – the film is actually a much closer approximation of the truth than I would have ever imagined – but the overall tone struck, and the thematic and character decisions made. Bay has taken a dark, disturbingly outlandish tale of greed, extortion, selfishness, and human depravity, and turned it into a broad, black, increasingly out-of-control comedy about the absurdity of the ‘American Dream,’ all without misrepresenting (most of) the fundamental facts of the incident.
I absolutely mean this as a compliment. I have been a harsh critic of Michael Bay’s work in the past (for good reason, I believe), but Pain & Gain is a passion project made with a clear, compelling vision and centered around some very interesting ideas, and for that, the man deserves credit. Pain & Gain is far from perfect – another pass needed to be made in the editing room to tighten the pace, and Bay’s trademark dumb improvisational banter (and abjectly racist humor) rears its ugly head too many times – but I do not feel like dwelling on the negative. This is a good movie, one that manages to be both entertaining and provocative, often at the same time.
Based on the true story of the ‘Sun Gym’ gang – a group of bodybuilders who, in 1994, kidnapped a rich man, tortured him until he signed over all his financial and material assets, and then attempted to kill him before moving on to other, even more gruesome crimes – Pain & Gain stars Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo, a personal trainer who, as he tells us in the film’s first line of dialogue, “believe(s) in fitness.” And so he does. Lugo is a ripped, motivated bodybuilder, and sees fitness as a metaphor for life. Building his body to be the best that it can be is the American way, he explains, and he wants to put that relentless energy towards building the life he has always wanted, a dream mostly scant on details but filled with money and beautiful women. Lugo wants more, and as an American, believes he deserves more, and is willing to do anything, legal or otherwise, to get it.
He is also, as you may have already gathered, spectacularly stupid.
That is the first, and perhaps most important, choice Bay makes in relating this story. Wahlberg and co-stars Anthony Mackie (as Lugo’s right-hand man Adrian Doorbal) and Dwayne Johnson (playing a largely fictional composite character named Paul Doyle) play three of the stupidest, most delusional protagonists ever to grace the silver screen, and it shapes the entire flavor of the story. As Pete Collins described them in the Miami New Times, the Sun Gym gang were petty, violent thugs whose ambition ultimately got the better of them, and while it is easy enough to extrapolate the absurdity of their actions into the characterizations seen here, it is remarkable how naturally Bay dials up the idiocy of his central characters over time, transforming real life into a wickedly macabre screwball comedy.
I am especially impressed at how distinct each of the three main characters are in their stupidity. Wahlberg, committing himself fully and never once flinching from the rising absurdity, plays Lugo as 100% earnest, a moron whose dreams of grandeur are genuine, but whose thought-process and execution are botched and warped every step of the way. Mackie interprets Doorbal as a simple guy with extreme tunnel-vision, so focused on his own simplistic and banal desires (getting bigger muscles and fixing his penis after excessive steroid abuse) that he is willing to go along for the ride and take it as far as he needs. And Johnson, giving the funniest and most richly detailed performance of his career, is a big, lovable teddy bear, an otherwise harmless oaf whose penchant for cocaine and repressed violent streak make for a volatile combination under the right circumstances.
These are characters we are meant to laugh at, not with, because they really are that dumb, and because the situations they find themselves in are perfect for letting their unique, individual stupidity bounce off one another to increasingly entertaining effect. And since they are, in fact, torturing and murdering people, this characterization never feels mean-spirited. It is perfectly fair to make relentless fun of these absurd bodybuilding lunatics, because they are never victims of anything other than their own bad decisions. These are smart and subversive character choices Bay and his actors have made, and they are what allow Pain & Gain to take a seemingly horrifying story and turn it into something legitimately funny and consistently surprising, all while keeping the major details of the crimes in tact.
Most impressively, it is through the preposterous nature of the comedy that Bay manages to spark a truly substantive conversation about what the American dream means today. Lugo’s ‘patriotic’ reasoning for his crimes is obviously born from his own foolishness, and is as much a source of humor as anything else in the film, but the joke is in no way empty. Bay has very real, very pointed things to say about how the base values of America – a supposed land of opportunity where one is believed to have the ability to make something out of oneself – have been twisted and transformed as rationale for crass selfishness and greed, and while the follow through is not as sharp as it could be, these are more than surface-level ideas. Pain & Gain feels relevant, because while its characters may be violent idiots, they are distinctly 21st century American idiots, and though we may laugh at them and find perverse amusement in their actions, we cannot completely dismiss them as social aberrations. Bay clearly loves and believes in America as much as he ever has, but here, when we see image after image of American flags and other national iconography, it does not feel like empty, stereotypical expressions of ‘patriotism,’ but thoughtful illustrations of the gap between what America should be and the lows it often reaches. The greatest praise I can lend Pain & Gain is that no one other than Michael Bay could take this specific reading out of the real-world story, and that his unique interpretation is one I find absolutely valuable and insightful.
This is also the first of Bay’s films where I feel completely on board with the stylistic decisions made. The editing and camerawork is still recognizably Bay – fast, loose, and with colors and contrast pumped up as high as they will go – but it is less hyperactive and more focused towards creating an effective cinematic atmosphere, one that highlights the comedy – great use is made out of playful on-screen text, slow-motion photography, and frozen images – while crafting interesting rhythms to match the mind sets of the characters. In particular, this is the best I have seen narration utilized in years. We are constantly hearing the internal thoughts of the characters, and because the device is employed consistently and always adds comic or dramatic insight, it feels like a valuable part of the stylistic toolbox, rather than a narrative cheat. The use of music too is exceptional, with Steve Jablonsky’s excellent score taking great lengths to ground the story and clever choices of pop music used at just the right moments (who knew the Rolling Stones’ “Can You Hear Me Knocking?” and bodily dismemberment worked so well together?).
The one major choice Pain & Gain makes that can be seen as legitimately and unnecessarily offensive to the real-world victims of these crimes is its characterization of Victor Kershaw, an alias for the Sun Gym gang’s first target, Marc Schiller. Kershaw is depicted as a mean, narcissistic brat, and while I understand the dramatic impulse to make him less relatable – Pain & Gain would have a tough time getting any laughs if we really loved and sympathized with the man being tortured – there is nothing in the Miami New Times article to suggest Schiller was anything like this. Given that the particulars of Schiller’s actual experience are mostly recreated beat for beat – he was held hostage and tortured for a full month before the Sun Gym gang attempted to gruesomely murder him – it feels like a cheap and insensitive move to depict his horrifying ordeal comically. Tony Shalhoub is very good in the part, adding a human dimension that does not exist in the script, but being aware of the real-world events, Kershaw’s role as a punching bag feels unjustified.
But no one has ever accused Michael Bay of being a particularly ‘sensitive’ filmmaker, after all. He does not shake that habit here, nor is he able to rid himself of some of his greatest weaknesses. What he does achieve, however, is extremely impressive, for Pain & Gain hones his strengths while introducing several new dimensions I never knew he had. Bolstered by a strong, game-for-anything cast, Bay exhibits and executes upon potential he has not demonstrated in many years, and in so doing, creates the best film of his career.