It’s been eight years since Michael Bay directed anything other than a Transformers movie, and if you’ve read interviews with him over the past couple of years, it’s obvious the director has been itching to move out of Optimus Prime’s shadow. But in a classic case of “one for them, one for me,” Paramount gave Bay a modest $25 million budget to direct Pain & Gain if he agreed to come back and direct the fourth entry into the giant robot franchise. For Bay, it was a good deal not just because of the stacks of money he’ll assuredly make by returning to his robot saga, but because this film lets him flex a different set of creative muscles. This is a small scale passion project that tells the true story of kidnapping, extortion, sex, and murder in Miami during the mid-1990s; in other words, it’s a story Michael Bay was born to tell.
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) believes in fitness, but he also believes he deserves more than he has. He’s a working class bodybuilder with a sense of entitlement, convinced that just because he’s spent his life sculpting and improving his physique, the world should rain women, money, and power upon him. His heroes are guys like Scarface, Rocky, and the Godfather, who worked their way up from nothing to attain greatness, and in Lugo’s demented version of the American Dream, he’s just like them. Fed up with life not aligning with his expectations, Lugo enlists two friends (Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie) to help him rob a rich, spoiled jerk (Tony Shaloub) who he met at the gym where he works. After all, they think they deserve what that jerk worked to achieve, and these guys are going to take him for all he’s got.
But even though he convinces himself and his friends that he knows what he’s doing, Lugo is mostly winging it. He lives his life according to platitudes delivered by an obnoxious self-help guru (Ken Jeong), and his planning and strategy expertise comes only from movies he’s seen. Pain & Gain is Michael Bay’s take on Spring Breakers told from a male perspective, and the ideal American Dream is just as twisted here as it is in Harmony Korine’s film. With materialism as his primary concern, Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo isn’t too far ideologically removed from James Franco’s Alien character. (Fantasizing about owning a lawn mower and a patch of grass to call his own, Lugo also shares a dream with the title character of Hobo With A Shotgun.) Wahlberg plays Lugo as a flustered lump of testosterone, delivering some terrific moments along the way.
Dwayne Johnson gets to play a much more complex character here than he’s used to. He’s a born-again former convict who is against the whole kidnapping plan from the start, but even though his physical prowess is impressive, he finds himself too mentally weak to resist temptation. His inner battle with his faith and his subsequent return to a drug-addicted life gives him a somewhat tragic arc, different from most of the actor’s past work. Mackie is fine as comic relief, but he has far more talent than this role calls for. Shaloub is fantastic as the douchebag victim in this whole wild scenario, at first making you root against him and then slowly bringing you around to his perspective. Ed Harris shows up halfway through as a private detective who takes Shaloub’s case when Miami PD doesn’t believe the story, and he’s just as good as you’d expect. Rebel Wilson, Rob Corddry, and Israeli model Bar Paly round out the cast in small roles.
As for Michael Bay, his direction is actually far more restrained than I expected. Fear not, you can tell it’s a Bay film – his style oozes across every frame, especially when women are framed into the shot – but the film generally reflects the size of its reduced budget. But for fans of his, there are a few signature Bay moments to be found in some epic slow motion low angle rotating shots, and particularly in a house party scene in which the camera moves in a circle through holes in the wall, rotating through two rooms in a way that calls back to this shootout sequence in Bad Boys II.
For once, though, the film’s most impressive aspect isn’t the direction, actors, or production design: it’s the story. So many utterly insane things happen in this movie that it’s easy to forget this stuff actually occurred, resulting in a funny moment when the film literally pauses to remind the audience of that very fact with text that reads “This is still a true story.” Pain & Gain’s depiction of class warfare is the most interesting subtext Michael Bay has had to work with in a long time, and this movie should prove to his haters that he has more to offer as a filmmaker than only making mega-budgeted mindless blockbusters. Until next time…