Rotten Tomatoes score: 44%
Critical Consensus: “It may be his most thought-provoking film to date, but Michael Bay‘s Pain & Gain ultimately loses its satirical edge in a stylized flurry of violent spectacle.”
Bay is a great friend of this column. If I’m ever in a pinch and can’t decide what to write on, well, the canon of Bay is always there to help a brother out. In comes “Pain and Gain,” a scaled-back movie (by Bay’s standards) that actually is worth your time. It won’t numb your senses the way the “Transformers” trilogy (soon to be quadrilogy) or “Pearl Harbor” does.
Based on a story that’s too bizarre to be fiction, the movie follows Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a personal trainer who wants his version of the American Dream. To get there, Lugo recruits a couple of guys, Paul Doyle (The Rock) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), to kidnap and extort one Lugo’s clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub).
What I like so much about this movie is the deep-seeded irony in the story. As a trainer, Lugo is quick to question the commitment of the people that are half-heartedly working out at his gym, while conveniently forgetting that he acquired his own physique with the help of steroids. So Daniel is a guy that knows exactly what he wants, but instead of putting in the work to get there, he just looks for the fastest possible route, never considering the consequences of his actions. This short-sighted entitlement mirrors one of the stronger themes from “Spring Breakers,” from a slightly different perspective.
The great joke of the whole thing is that Lugo and Co. put in an extreme amount of work to rob Kershaw. What the movie doesn’t really stress is the fact that Kershaw got his status by cheating as well, which puts Daniel and Kershaw on the same playing field. To me this takes the movie from a simple bad-guys versus good-guys movie to something more. Dare I say something deeper.
Even if you don’t find something to latch onto thematically, there are enough surface-level elements to keep your attention. Start with Wahlberg and The Rock. This could be Wahlberg’s best work and unquestionably the best we’ve seen from The Rock. These characters are so confounding in their stupidity, yet Wahlberg and The Rock manage to inject enough sincerity into their performances that they never become cartoonish. Between scenes of a coke-crazed Paul berating neighborhood husbands while Lugo lectures on responsibilities and a man being lit on fire and run over, there’s definitely a Looney Tunes vibe to the criminals’ plot. I can’t quite explain how this all gelled for me, but it did. I’ve seen some Coen brothers comparisons, but this movie obviously isn’t on that level. To its credit, it also doesn’t have the contempt for the characters/audiences that the Coens are sometimes accused of.
The movie could easily judge the characters and look down on them with the audience, but instead it just plays straight and lets the absurdity of the story resonate. By doing that, Bay is not only able to comment on these kinds of people, but on the broken system that we currently live in, where people feel like it’s easier to cheat and hoodwink their way to the top and nobody on either side of the law really knows what’s going on.
For the first time in my adult life, a Bay movie inspired something other than a pervasive sense of self-disappointment and despair. That in and of itself is cause for minor celebration. I’m still not sure if I’m overrating “Pain and Gain” because it’s not terrible, but I am sure that it’s something worth spending some time on. If all else fails and you’re hating it while you watch, start playing this drinking game.