Like Coolio in his 1995 song “Gangsta’s Paradise”, Pain and Gain walks through the valley of the shadow of death, but unlike the rapper, it comes out relatively unscathed. Someone, somewhere, in that far-off land/backwater village called Hollywood decided it was possible to write, shoot and successfully market an action-comedy about actual extortionist-murderers. Amazingly, they were correct. I never thought I would say this, but Michael Bay’s skillset has finally been put to proper use in his muscle-bound, morally repugnant but disturbingly enjoyable latest. Only Bay has the requisite editorial tools to distract from dialogue this clunky and characterizations this manipulative. It is hard to imagine that the real-life victims were this detestable, and easy to watch in pain.
Mark Wahlberg is Daniel Lugo, a fitness obsessed criminal non-mastermind who flies without a net, save what he has learned at the movies. Unlike Jack Black in Bernie and Matt Damon in The Informant!, both portraying ridiculous real-life wrong-doers, Wahlberg here feels natural and like someone who actually exists in the world. Lugo leads a trio rounded out by Paul Doyle (the fun and fearless Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie). These two are brought in by Lugo’s fierce and oft-stated belief that a winner is someone who takes care of their own body and well-being, and pursues the American dream with gusto and hard work. The irony is that Lugo chooses to channel his hard work into taking property from people who worked hard to get it. The three men kidnap and torture the rude-but-still-human Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, still Monk-ish after all these years) until he signs over everything he owns.
I know this is a serious allegation, but I am fairly certain Tom Muldoon and Joel Negron, P&G’s editors, are juicing. How else to explain the film’s constant intensity, which can only be compared to being in the middle of a straight leg dead lift? The way they combine highly mobile GoPros, special-effects-enhanced editography, and the slowest-mo that can currently be produced makes for two hours of clenched teeth. The mid-nineties period element is certainly sold with scenography, but reinforced by Michael Bay’s use of techniques straight out of his early commercial work.
Like Bernie and The Informant!, Pain and Gain codes the absurdity of its central character into a suitable filmmaking style. However, Bay goes one step further by making his criminals not just central characters, but full-blown protagonists. A big repercussion is that the film rarely takes an outsider perspective, instead letting us experience the crime from within its own internal logic. We are allowed to develop sympathy for Lugo, Doorbal and Doyle, but we are also given the freedom to turn away when we most want to. Pain and Gain’s satirical edge begins as hidden as the bones underneath Dwayne Johnson’s rippling flesh. Bay has made a film that is, believe it or not, subtle in its tone even as it is anything but in its directorial stamp.