Bayhem: Pain & Gain Reviewed

Baffled by rumours of Michael Bay making a half-decent movie? Patrick Smith is here to explain all...

“I’m hot, I’m big” cries Mark Whalberg’s Daniel Lugo, bodybuilder and extortioner, living out life in mid 90’s Miami. The mantra “I’m hot, I’m big” could almost be appropriated as the tagline for all of Michael Bay’s films. From Bad Boys through to the Transformers cycle, Bay’s filmmaking has always been coloured by a high degree of conceit and narcissism- not always to the films’ detriments (Bad Boys I and II, The Rock), but often absolutely so (Pearl Harbour, Transformers I-III). Pain & Gain, however, has been marketed as somewhat of a different beast. In several pre-release interviews Bay has stated he wished to make a “quirky movie” on a relatively restrained budget ($26 million, around a 10th of the budget for Transformers: Dark of the Moon). This is an unusual understatement from an aggressively self-aggrandising director. With Pain & Gain we have a film that bridges moments of the surreal and absurd with the blackly comedic to give a baroque recount of the 1995 Sun Gym Gang murders. It is certainly Bay’s most accomplished work to date; however, it must be noted from the start that any positives are tempered by his usual abhorrent predilection towards making light of topics such as homophobia, racism and misogyny.

Bay’s film is a much skewed and coloured translation of Pete Collins’ 1999 Miami New Times series on the kidnapping, torture and extortion of several victims by a number of criminals, a central selection of whom were bodybuilders associated with the popular Miami Sun Gym. Whalberg, Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson form the central bodybuilding threesome. Lugo (Whalberg), a trainer at the Sun Gym, is made envious and hate-filled by a new client, the wealthy chicken shop empire owner Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). He ropes in Paul Doyle (Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Mackie) to assist in extorting Kershaw for his assets by way of kidnap and torture. Bay, as always, holds back from offering full characterisation, happy rather to sketch out garish delineations for each of his central players. Lugo is our “ideas man” with predominantly awful ideas, Doyle is a reformed drug addict devoting his life to the church, and Doorbal is our dim-witted stooge with a penchant for plus-sized women. As with all Bay’s films he is more interested in assembling quick bridges between moments of spectacle, rather than forming more intricate narratives or deeper characterisation. Where this “spectacular” approach has often underscored Bay’s self-involved and vainglorious directorial style, within Pain & Gain it operates as an interesting and largely effective counterpoint to the blackly comic and surrealistic elements of the film. The absurd situations that Bay places his two dimensional characters within begin to work, knowingly or not, as a critique of American self-entitlement.

The further into the rabbit hole our protagonists go and the closer they get to the consumerist ideals they feel they need to fulfil, the more Bay ramps up the absurdity. The film can be placed in a lineage of American cinema that explores the theme of a corrupting belief in self-entitlement (The Game, Boogie Nights and Behind the Candelabra to name just three). However where other directors use effectively detached or flattened styles to criticise consumerism (P.T Anderson, Steven Soderbergh), Bay’s employment of highly intensified editing strategies, God-shot angles and close ups and repetition (often fetishising women and violence), mean that viewers can literally see the $23 million pouring out of the screen. Bay has therefore managed to craft something quite unique- a work that can be read as an indictment of capitalism whilst presenting itself through an overtly high-cost stylistic framework.

Pain & Gain can certainly be read as a completely abhorrent, bathos inducing mess, and, to be honest, I wouldn’t take issue with someone holding that position. However, I think that Bay, perhaps unknowingly, has created a work that has a strong central dialectic; partly critical of contemporary American ideals, but also complicit with them through its “big budget” construction. As a result we have a film that is more complex than it first appears, and perhaps more so than its director intended.

Pain & Gain is out in UK cinemas today

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