Although I recently wrote of my fondness for Armageddon, I still can’t consider myself a fan of director Michael Bay. There’s just no defending the likes of Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. However, due mainly to his high profile and massive (over $4 billion) box office takings; he’s evolved into something of a hate figure for many film critics. I feel I frequently hear him talked about as being one of, if not the worst working filmmaker. He has also on occasion been singled out as being the prime example of everything wrong with Hollywood movies today. This kind of exaggerated contempt is more akin to the scrawling of anonymous fanboys on internet forums than supposedly serious film criticism, and it leaves people like me vaguely wanting to defend the man even though I don’t care for much of his work. For the record, aside from my previously detailed Armageddon penchant, I do think 1996’s The Rock is a genuinely great action thriller. I can take or leave the rest of Bay’s directorial output and only seriously disliked Transformers 2. I think he is, for the most part however, an intelligent filmmaker who’s unfortunately more interested in box office success than producing good movies. In general, he knows what he’s doing and who he’s doing it for. The Transformers series has been increasingly more profitable, with the third entering the billion dollar club. He might always work within the major studio system but he’s no anonymous hack, he maintains a recognisable style. Labelling him as the worst director in the world is kind of like calling Ron Howard the greatest director in the world; lazy and narrow minded. An article on film.com earlier this year made the following very good point about him:
“He’s also one of the few iconic auteurs of the last 20 years whose entire body of work has probably been seen by huge swaths of the American public – simply by virtue of going to the biggest new movie in town, even casual moviegoers might unknowingly be familiar with the complete output of Michael Bay.”
This brings us to Bay’s latest offering; Pain & Gain. This is a film unlike anything Bay’s made before. It’s not an action film at all, instead being a mid-nineties set, crime-themed dark comedy, based on a true story, and produced for a fraction of what most of his films cost. It presents Bay’s first real chance to alter his reputation.
Pain & Gain stars Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo, an overly self-confident personal trainer who’s just reinvigorated an ailing gym business. He’s desperate to live the American dream, as he sees it, and be the best (the US flag is deployed liberally throughout as a constant reminder). One of his clients at the gym is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a highly unpleasant but wildly successful Colombian-American entrepreneur. After spending some time training with him, Wahlberg hatches a plan to kidnap and extort him. To assist him in this he recruits two bodybuilders, Adrian (Anthony Mackie), another over-confident man, but who’s been rendered impotent by steroid abuse, and Paul (Dwayne Johnson), a formerly alcoholic ex-convict who’s become a born again Christian. All, one could charitably say, possess below-average levels of intelligence.
Pain & Gain’s bizarre story becomes more disturbing as it progresses, with the film even pausing to remind you of its fact based nature come one particularly gruesome moment. This material is certainly a change for Bay, and while it features minimal special effects and action (compared with his other work), he doesn’t seem interested in any visual reinvention. Instead the film is shot in Bay’s usual slick style, featuring lots of sunsets and fast editing (not to mention scantily clad women). He’s taken a script that could have been a low-budget indie film and made the whole thing like a big blockbuster. It’s not an inherently bad decision, and could have resulted in Pain & Gain feeling more unique, but instead often lets you forget that this was supposed to be his ‘small movie’.
Another significant talking point to Pain & Gain is its humour. It’s arguably possible that the story could have been made as a serious drama, though the sheer dim-wittedness of its central trio would have proved a challenge there, and it’s a tricky thing to turn a real-life tragedy into a dark comedy, something many people will just object to in principle (though I don’t count myself among them). Comedy has never been a strong suit for Bay though, and it shows, with many jokes failing and the film being way too long for this genre. He adds known comedic actors like Ken Jeong and Rebel Wilson for bit parts but just leaves them to do their usual thing. He has got himself a decent central cast to work with though, Mark Wahlberg has been much better in comedic roles recently and he brings a relentless energy to the moronic Lugo. Anthony Mackie also shows a new side here but Dwayne Johnson is particularly good, conveying even a hint of childlike innocence beneath his hulking, brainless exterior, which manages to bring him a little sympathy, even though he’s quite possibly a coke-addled psychopath. I really think this guy could be an A-list movie star if he picks his projects well (hint: less G.I Joe: Retaliation). On the other-side, Ed Harris also brings strong support as the film’s only intelligent character. The film utilises an unusual voiceover technique too, having various different characters describe their feelings or explain the plot at different points.
Pain & Gain is a problematic film, many of Bay’s usual flaws are apparent, and it risks simply being a big dumb movie about big dumb people. Still though, it is Michael Bay taking a big risk, and attempting something new. Even if it was a complete disaster, I think I’d rather have Bay trying and failing than just churning out another soulless Transformers sequel (though that’s unfortunately his next move). For all the troubles you could identify in Pain & Gain, at least it’s…..interesting.