With a less-than-stellar opening weekend gross and a 48 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Michael Bay’s protein-powder-and-steroid-fueled thriller Pain & Gain will most likely be shuffled off to the summer movie glue factory when Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (90 percent on RT) suits up and flies into theaters on Friday. Which is too bad, because Bay’s divisively received dark comedy is very much worth seeing. Tonally all over the place and dangerously sluggish at times, the highlights are still hilarious. It’s a weird movie by any standards, but especially for Michael Bay. In yet another summer filled with superhero movies and franchises, Pain & Gain is refreshingly nihilistic. Bay deconstructs alpha maledom from the inside, revealing the nerdy kid from the Valley who loves West Side Story he secretly is.
Michael Bay is a mythical, Kenny Powers–like figure, who updates his own message board to make sure everyone knows he didn’t really apologize for something people said he did and sends open letters to theaters explaining how to best project his films. He’s also the sort of guy who reads his own message board, which makes you wonder if he ever reads his critics and takes them seriously. Certainly he has always seemed too stubborn to change anything about himself, but that’s just standard director protocol. Is it possible that Bay postures as cartoonishly overconfident because he’s actually insecure? And that maybe he listened to the people who love Bad Boys but hate the Transformers films, who are nostalgic for ’90s action comedies, who thought that his misogyny crossed a line during his public feud with Megan Fox? (Maybe he listened to Megan Fox’s complaints? It’s not totally out of the question. He just cast her in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which he’s producing.) Without all the traditional summer movie clutter, Pain & Gain can focus on set pieces that are totally excessive, but still minimalist by Bay standards.
Michael Bay’s egocentrism, vanity, and inability to back down are legendary. Yet here is a movie that criticizes narcissism, male vanity, and stubbornness. While Pain & Gain‘s characters’ downfall is that they are all excruciatingly dumb, Bay presumably self-identifies as intelligent. (He may not be book smart, but he knows how to make a film.) He shoots human beings so that they resemble expensive objects themselves; Pain & Gain has female strippers and one Romanian sexpot, but most of the camera’s ogling is devoted to the men. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie are oiled up like hot rods and paraded in a number of ’90s dude staples: Nike tank tops, Dan Marino jerseys, Southie tuxedos. Without the CGI effects that have dominated his last few projects (three Transformers movies and The Island), Bay lets the actors run the show. It’s a deftly meatheaded update of the buddy criminal movie that accidentally (or maybe purposely?) functions as a screed against Bay’s most loyal audience: bros.
No matter how big the guys’ guns are, their brains never grow beyond the size of peanuts. Despite their Rob Liefeld–drawn muscles and midnight-movie-inspired kidnapping plans, they are eventually outfoxed satisfyingly by a laid-back Miami detective played by Ed Harris, who is the story’s late-appearing hero. When Harris appears it becomes obvious that the trio of bumbling torturers are the villains, and that if we like them it’s purely in a conflicted sort of way. Dwayne Johnson’s Christ-loving coke fiend is the easiest to love, because Johnson’s own soulful presence shines through. Mackie is the funniest, and his side-plot romance with Rebel Wilson is actually kind of sexy and romantic until [spoiler].
Wahlberg’s character, Daniel Lugo, based on the real Sun Gym gang leader, is the truest sociopath, which suits him like playing Everyman heroes never has. I was reminded a lot of his pre–Boogie Nights, career-making performance in Fear. There are no Transformers or other sentient machines, but Pain & Gain makes a good argument that a very dumb robot might still be more intelligent than Wahlberg’s Lugo. Wahlberg excels at playing dim and lovable, but Channing Tatum has edged him out for the younger demo. Marky Mark has aged into a Stallone-like sweet lunkhead, especially good at portraying regular guys desperately chasing that one last chance. For Pain & Gain he’s drained out all the sweetness and left only a ripped turtle shell.
Pain & Gain pairs extremely well with Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s much better movie that also explores themes of crime, drugs, and the American Dream in a similarly jewel-toned Florida setting. They’re vividly beautiful with quirky sequences and strong performances. Both explore the dangers of using Brian De Palma’s Scarface as your life bible and fast-forwarding through Tony Montana’s downward spiral at the end. Scarface was divisive when it first came out but quickly became a cult classic, and I could see Pain & Gain doing the same. (Maybe not a dorm-room-poster classic, but a classic among contrarian fans of dark-comedy action films with ’70s downer endings and Michael Mann–inspired, orange-speedboat Miami milieus.) Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain go for broke on a familiar candy-painted neon aesthetic. Along with the Fast & Furious franchise (whose sixth movie rolls out in May), they all try to tap into the same pineal gland as the Grand Theft Auto games, with varying degrees of success.
Also like Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain has several indelible images that will stick with you after the film, some of which include face masks. I found myself thinking at various times of De Palma, David Lynch, and John Waters. The film is deeply homoerotic, and it plays up the gym gang’s homophobia as part of their brutishness. Bay lingers on shots of huge, silicone-jelly dildos, while the characters suffer erectile dysfunction from consuming steroids or doing cocaine. (Coincidentally, Harmony Korine has said he cut a sequence from Spring Breakers in which the girls use giant dildos as guns to hold up tourists at the beach.) In pursuit of becoming the perfect macho commodity, Pain & Gain‘s guys lose the thing that makes them salable. The largest quantity isn’t automatically best. Too much testosterone makes you impotent.
Or maybe I’m totally wrong! Maybe we’re meant to take Danny Lugo’s proclamations about being American and his belief in obtaining superficial success at face value. But his life grows increasingly empty as he gets all the things he thinks he needs, both because they’re ultimately meaningless and because he stole them. Meanwhile, Ed Harris’s private investigator lives a quiet but satisfying life with his wife that serves as a stark contrast to the flashy, clubby shenanigans of the Sun Gym crew. He’s the Tommy Lee Jones character in No Country for Old Men or Frances McDormand in Fargo. I choose to think Michael Bay is becoming a more sentient machine, and hope that between his big tentpoles he will keep pushing himself into unexpected places. Let’s make the audience believe again.