By Zev Burrows
A Michael Bay film without explosions is still a Michael Bay film. Wait, I misspoke. A Michael Bay film with only one explosion is still a Michael Bay film. That explosion comes in the middle of Pain & Gain, where a car is blown to high heaven in a public parking garage.
Don’t however, let that one fact mislead you. Bay is still one of the most infamous and hated directors of recent years, if not, of all time. And to say that his new film Pain & Gain is his best film to date is still not saying a whole lot. The film does suffer from the usual misfortunes and problems that plague the director’s work, but unlike his previous effort, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, there seems to be something at work here: it is more tolerable than any of the Transformers films. And the only reason I went to see this movie is because it went to number one at the box office, and I take it upon myself to stay up on the latest hits.
The film is based on a true story. In late 1994 to mid 1995, body builder and personal trainer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and his two body building buddies, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), carried out a serious of crimes that involved kidnapping one of Lugo’s clients (Tony Shalhoub), weaseling away his entire fortune, doing a fair amount of cocaine, and killing two innocent people. We all know more or less exactly where this film is going to end up: the police, along with the aid of private detective Ed DuBois (Ed Harris), catch the three criminals.
Look, I said that the film is Bay’s best yet. That doesn’t mean it’s a good film or one that I’d recommend. The director has often been criticized by many people (not least among them Mike Stoklasa, aka Mr. Plinkett of RedLetterMedia) as showing nothing but contempt for audiences. The amount of that has been reduced from his previous films thankfully, but it probably was not Bay’s intention. The film still looks somewhat ugly, but thanks to a change in cinematographers from Transformers: Dark of the Moon, it is not downright hideous.
What surprised me about Pain & Gain was the fact that the performances given by the three main actors aren’t bad. Wahlberg, Mackie, and Johnson get by just fine with an otherwise lacking screenplay, and they help bring life to the film. The standout obviously, is Wahlberg, who is quite good at playing shallow muscle boy jerks that screw up big time.
The film falters where Michael Bay films usually do. I have already mentioned the cinematography, but that’s probably the least of my issues. Like most of the director’s work, the film is downright misogynist. One of the trademarks in Bay’s films is having an absurdly large amount of models acting like sluts on camera, and to add insult to injury, not one of these female characters (with perhaps the smallest exception of DuBois’ wife, who gets maybe three lines and five minutes of screen time) is in any way intelligent.
My biggest problem with the film however, lies in its execution. There are many instances where we sympathize with jerks that practice violence (Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is an excellent example of this, where a tormented and jealous boxer flies into rage in the ring). But Bay leads it in exactly the wrong direction. There isn’t any torment or motivation for these criminals other than just money. A few years ago, the Coen brothers directed a film involving a heist and jerks after the same reward. That movie was Burn After Reading, which is a modern-day masterpiece, and a film that I encourage everyone to see. But that film made fun of its characters in every way it could, becoming one of the top comedies of the past decade. Unlike Pain & Gain, it is a great satire.
In Pain & Gain, we aren’t supposed to like any of the guys that are committing these heinous crimes, but Bay wants us to do so. I’m sure he doesn’t mean to do this, but through this film, he promotes not only that women are just objects, but that it’s cool to commit atrocities, just so long as you keep those perfect biceps.
Somewhere underneath all of the hate and misery, there is a good film here, one that could have easily tried to sympathize more with the Shalhoub character when he is thrust into a world of freakish pain. I’m sure with the right director, there would be a fun satire made out of tragic events. But I can’t beneath the fact that Bay just doesn’t seem to get past his childish mannerisms. His overt obsessions with over-the-top masculinity and misogyny get in the way of a film that needn’t be as bad as it is. Yes, I know it’s based on real life events. But couldn’t there have been the slightest attempt to make an audience not feel quite so unclean?