Michael Bay makes films like an athlete – or a body-builder. His rhythm is the hard, steady, piston-like thrust of hundreds of kilos of weights being bench-pressed – over and over and over. Other filmmakers might vary the tone, just to give the audience some relief; not Bay. You snooze, you lose. No pain, no gain. When his plot overheats and threatens to become unmanageable, he just goes at it harder – you can almost hear his short, determined grunts on the soundtrack – like an athlete pushing his weary body to the limit.
Many critics hate Bay, but in fact he can be funny; there’s an amusing disconnect between his aggressive style and the silly things he makes films about. His worst movie is allegedly Pearl Harbour, and I haven’t seen it but the verdict makes sense: so much testosterone in the service of a serious (and patriotic) subject would be too much gung-ho for anyone. When the subject is unworthy, however – when people start yelling and bickering over giant robots in Transformers, say – the hysterical anger seems excessive, hence hilarious. Bay’s style has delusions of grandeur – which is why it fits so well with Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) in Pain & Gain, who also has delusions of grandeur.
Danny is a body-builder and personal trainer in mid-90s Florida – but he wants more, and thinks he can get it. “If I believe I deserve it, the universe will serve it,” is his motto (or one of his mottos), borrowed from a motivational speaker who urges his disciples to be “doers”, not “don’ters”. Danny believes in “fitness” and also believes in America, the land of second chances. His plan is to kidnap obnoxious tycoon Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and force him to sign over his fortune; he wears a hood and speaks with a foreign accent so Victor (who’s one of his clients) won’t know who his assailants are – but Victor recognises him anyway, at which point the plan goes wrong and keeps going wrong-er.
The film goes wrong as well – but the early scenes are great, because Danny’s self-belief dovetails so neatly with Bay’s thrusting style. Look at us, says Danny to his cohorts Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian (Anthony Mackie), flaunting their bulging muscles in the mirror, “we’re like superheroes”. He’s like America, he claims, “the most buff, pumped-up country on the planet”, and his dream is the American Dream – to start with nothing and end up rich and powerful like all his movie heroes, Don Corleone or Tony Montana (from Scarface). For a while the film is thrilling, because Bay makes films the way Danny might make films – he flaunts his own stylistic muscles, with copious slo-mo in the first 10 minutes alone – and the image of the US as a hulking muscle-man beating up smaller countries resonates with him too (Transformers and its sequels are notably militaristic), yet he also knows that Danny is thick as a brick. Pain & Gain crackles with a rare tension, the tension of a filmmaker who’s found his true subject in the person of a cretinous body-builder.
Everything up to the heist works well. Danny hooks up with a bimbo Romanian stripper whose devotion to America matches his own; Paul, a born-again ex-con, credits Jesus with saving him from drugs (“The Son of God knew how to just say no”) then gets jumped by a gay priest (Bay is no fan of political correctness); Adrian’s steroid use has left him with a shrunken penis, at least till a doctor promises to restore the “beautiful robust erections” of his youth. They’re a buffed-up, oddly innocent Three Stooges who down 3000-calorie protein shakes before each farcical fiasco. Yet the kidnapping itself isn’t really played for laughs (admittedly, the film is based on a true story) and the aftermath gets increasingly ugly, dwelling on Victor’s humiliations and upping the gross-out quotient till our heroes are barbecuing severed human hands (!) in their front yard.
There’s a way to play this material, but Pain & Gain doesn’t really find it – maybe because Bay has only one rhythm, his thrusting, in-your-face, fist-pumping rhythm. As the tale grows weirder and more episodic, the film should perhaps have slowed down or stepped back (or become more stylised like Boogie Nights, to cite another Mark Wahlberg movie), but Bay just keeps hitting the same hysterical note – a close-up of a severed big toe! a giant caption listing the dangers of cocaine! another Balkan bimbo sporting state-of-the-art implants! – so you end up feeling brutalised. “You’re a hard man to like,” Victor Kershaw is told, and the same could be said of this callous, belligerent director – yet Pain & Gain has its moments in the first half, and if nothing else it offers a line I can (and will) quote ad infinitum from now on, every time my friends or significant others question my abilities, claim I’m overcooking the spaghetti or wonder if I took the wrong turning: “I’ve watched a lot of movies, Paul. I know what I’m doing”. Thanks, Mr. Bay.
DIRECTED BY MichaelBay
STARRING Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie
US 2013 129 mins