Pain & Gain (2013)
It’s amazing what Michael Bay can do when he actually likes his job.
Make no mistake: Pain & Gain is unquestionably Michael Bay’s best work. By a lot. Even at his best, Michael Bay has never before been what you might call an artist. Certainly he had a distinctive style, but even his good movies were nothing more than glossed-up, market-tested, uniformly produced blockbusters. Even the much-lauded insanity of Bad Boys II was a very standard sort of insanity (one need look no farther than the Crank series to see what truly insane action filmmaking looks like). He’s essentially been the lowbrow counterpart to Roland Emmerich. Until now, he never had what every filmmaker needs to make a truly great film: passion.
That’s not to say that Pain & Gain is exactly great. To the contrary, it’s heavily flawed and frequently insipid. All of Michael Bay’s juvenile humor, prepubescent sexual obsessions, and over-stylization are on display. It’s devoid of subtlety and nowhere near as thought-provoking as it thinks it is. But it has a spark to it, a sincerity that makes up for a lot of that. This is what happens when a director truly connects with his material and puts a part of himself into the heart of the project. An audience will forgive a lot if they sense you love what you’re doing, and it’s clear that, possibly for the first time, Michael Bay does*.
Bay has long been a vocal fan of the Coen Brothers. This is the reason for several veterans of their films being given the dubious honor of appearing in the Transformers series. So it’s no surprise that Pain & Gain comes across as essentially Bay’s version of Fargo. The cold, snowy town of Fargo, North Dakota is replaced with bright, hot Miami. The weasel-ly backstabbing criminals are replaced with a more likable bunch, bodybuilders turned kidnapers. Frances McDormand is replaced with Ed Harris. And the quiet, subtle tone is replaced with, well… Michael Bay.
Despite being inspired by Fargo almost to the point of being a fan film, Pain & Gain is still very much a Michael Bay film, arguably the first true auteur project to his name. So many of Michael Bay’s habits that were an annoying obstruction before are somehow given focus and actually work to his advantage. The film, as I mentioned, has no regard for subtlety, delivering character motivation and theme point blank. Almost every character of any significance gets a turn narrating at some point. But because it’s consistent, it fits with the films bombastic tone and can be forgiven. It even becomes rather endearing at times, especially towards the end, when events get truly insane and Bay decides to stop and remind the audience a second time that the film is based on true events, like a rambling friend who keeps saying, “I remind you, I’m not making this up!”
But most importantly, Michael Bay has actually managed to deliver an engaging narrative for the first time in his entire career. While not a particularly layered character piece, the film has well-rounded and charismatic characters, clear guiding themes, and often clever black comedy. It’s genuinely good storytelling, and as a result, Bay’s usual unnecessarily long running time is rarely an issue. Mark Wahlberg is a likable but flawed leading man, Tony Shaloub is a fun-to-hate sleazebag of a villain, and Dwayne Johnson’s oddly childlike born-again Christian ex-con steals the show with his drop-dead hilarious line delivery. And through it all, the ever reliable Ed Harris plays straight man and moral anchor, even delivering the “just a little bit of money” speech at the end that solidifies the film’s Fargo inspiration.
Pain & Gain isn’t what you’d call a great film. It’s stupid as hell, and as far as black comedy crime capers go, the Coens have nothing to worry about. But it’s got it where it counts. It’s fun, it’s genuine, and it comes straight from the heart, cheesy as that may sound. If there was an award for “Most Improved Director” Michael Bay surely deserves one. It wasn’t quite worth getting three Transformers movies (with two more on the way), but it sure helps ease the pain.
[*So much, in fact, that he reportedly went without a salary to get it made (as did Wahlberg and Johnson), settling instead for a share of the profits. You gotta feel for the guy, really. Christopher Nolan makes two hit movies, the second of which makes a billion internationally, and gets a $160 million dollar budget to make his pet project in exchange for a third one. Bay makes three hit movies, the last of which made a billion internationally, and his reward is a $25 million dollar budget for his pet project, without pay, in exchange for two more. Paramount doesn’t seem to treat Bay very well.]