In Praise of Michael Bay?!? Revisiting Pain and Gain

(Image Credit: Paramount Pictures)

It was April of 2013 and I had just finished my junior year of college, facing the crossroads between the lackadaisical summer breaks of my previous school years and the impending pressure and responsibilities of potential internships, jobs, future schooling, and adulthood. After the end of the semester, I decided to stick around my off-campus housing for a bit, enjoying everything about my neighborhood and the surrounding area without the worries of class and exams. One afternoon, one of my roommates suggested/demanded that we see the film Pain and Gain, at the time the most recent directorial effort by Michael Bay. Yes, that Michael Bay, one of the most hated directors among critics and the broader internet film intelligentsia. In 2013, Bay was still at the helm of the Transformers franchise, with Pain and Gain being released after the terrible one set in Chicago but before the one with (10 minutes) of dinobots.

(Side note: Transformers: Age of Extinction is really, really, really, like, really bad. The movie has more interest explaining the “Romeo and Juliet laws” to justify the relationship between two young characters than having a coherent plot).

Thus, as a person interested in and keeping up with the broader internet film discourse, I was NOT looking forward to sitting through Pain and Gain. The fact that I was inundated with ads for the film over the previous month (as a male in my early 20s at the time, ads for Pain and Gain were quite common on the TV channels I watched) didn’t help matters much. Pain and Gain looked like a dumb movie about bodybuilders loaded with an excess of the Michael Bay aesthetic.

Nevertheless, I was wrong. I liked Pain and Gain. Actually, I really liked Pain and Gain. It was still a movie about bodybuilders loaded with an excess of Bay-isms, hyperfixation on action scenes and explosions, scantily clad women presented on film through “the male gaze,” and mid-level shots panning upward at the people in similar fashion to a Victoria’s Secret commercial. But, rather than a dumb movie, Pain and Gain was a well-acted and well-made dark comedy about true crimes in mid-1990s Miami.

I recently rewatched the film as part of a marathon of movies featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson leading up to the television premiere of Rampage, a brief window of escapism amid a lingering global pandemic along with  racial strife due to systemic racism and continued police brutality in the United States. Not only do I still like the film and think it holds up, but I believe that Pain and Gain as it exists could only have been made by Michael Bay with his particular aesthetic and sensibilities.

This should not be taken as a celebration of all of Michael Bay’s films. ArmageddonPearl Harbor, and the Bay Transformers films are still really bad movies. I never really got into the Bad Boys franchise. His films are still loaded with racist and homophobic characterizations that are uncomfortable to watch. Explosions, action, and special effects alone to not make a good movie. But, in this particular instance, with this particular film, Bay produced a movie that no one else could make.

The movie centers on the real life Sun Gym gang, with members Daniel Lugo, Adrian Doorbal, and Paul Doyle (a composite character based on Carl Weekes, Stevenson Pierre, and Jorge Delgado) played by Mark Wahlberg, the underrated Anthony Mackie (he’s really good in everything he’s in), and the aforementioned Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (he’s actually underrated too, he’s the biggest action star we’ve got and people still overlook that the guy can actually act). The three bodybuilders, frustrated with mounting bills, monotony, sexual impotence in the case of Doorbal, and the sense that they are missing out on “the American Dream,” resolve to kidnap self-made millionaire Victor Kershaw (name changed in the film to protect the survivor) played by Tony Shalhoub and make him sign away his home, his businesses, and all of his assets. The bodybuilders are woefully incompetent in their criminal activity but nevertheless manage to steal Kershaw’s money. They attempt but ultimately fail to kill their mark and tie up loose ends, but the bodybuilders manage to get away with their crimes due to the fact that the Miami police find Kershaw so unbelievable (and wildly unlikeable) that they do not investigate the crime.

The criminals revel in their success, with Doorball buying a new house and marrying his girlfriend, Lugo literally moving into Kershaw’s home in an upper class neighborhood, and Doyle slipping back into cocaine addiction and spending all of his money on shopping excursions with his girlfriend, a Romanian stripper eager for her own taste of the American dream. After a few months, the men have run out of money and decide to run a similar scheme on millionaire phone sex operator Frank Griga. This goes even worse than the first plan, as the criminals end up killing Griga and his girlfriend, and their subsequent attempts to cover up the crime and dispose of the bodies results in an escalating comedy of errors that ultimately leads to their arrest.

The film is about crimes ranging from kidnapping to grisly murder, hardly a funny subject on its face. Yet, the film frames the events and encourages the audience to laugh at the escalating ridiculousness as well as the stupidity and despicable nature of the Sun Gym gang. When Lugo tells the audience through voice-over that “he always grew up wanting to see Paris and France,” expresses his love for self-help infomercial speak, and doesn’t want people to think that a urine-soaked Kershaw is “intercontinental” (rather than incontinent), you recognize that “the brains of the operation” isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.

As things continue to build and crescendo into the third act, with Griga killed by an errant weight slipping off of a bar or when Doyle attempts to burn off his fingerprints by literally cooking his hands on a grill, you laugh at specifically how uncomfortable and grisly the situation is. When Lugo criticizes Doorbal for buying “a piece of China crap” chainsaw rather than a gas-powered American model in order to dispose of the corpses, you chuckle but are also made uneasy; you probably know someone like this or can imagine someone acting like this in real-life, even within the context of getting rid of a dead body. Simply put, Pain and Gain is an extended episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, quite literally, on steroids.

This is not to say that no one in Hollywood past or present could make a dark comedy. Hell, Martin Scorsese directed and released his own dark comedy about despicable people getting rich just eight months later. However, the specific alchemy of sleazy debauchery that is Pain and Gain could only have been made by Michael Bay. Sure, films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street among others focus on people (men) doing nefarious things to become rich and successful, and these movies are well-regarded by critics and audiences alike and don’t require a lengthy blog post to defend their merits.

But it is the aesthetic style, the specific technical and artistic vision of Michael Bay, is what truly separates Pain and Gain from other films like it. The Sun Gym gang consider themselves shrines to physical human perfection, and Bay’s direction manages to both fetishize their physique while rightly demonizing the men as reprehensible human beings. The “male gaze” is a common theme within Michael Bay’s filmography, usually to objectify women to a young male viewing audience, but in this case it is projected onto the Sun Gym gang, contrasting their obsession with physical perfection with moral bankruptcy through cinematography and the language of film. While Scorsese dark comedies are hyper-stylized films about bad people getting what is coming to them, Pain and Gain leans even harder into excess and bad taste, reserving no ounce of sympathy and humanity for anyone involved.

These aren’t people to feel bad for, look up to, or even think about trying to be like, they are terrible people doing terrible things that you laugh at because you know what’s coming to them and that they deserve it. The grisly, grimy, sleazy ephemora of Pain and Gain highlights how rotten its central characters are, with the over-the top excess of the art direction and cinematography complementing the depiction of crimes ranging from illegal to horrific. Though various Michael Bay-isms have led to numerous films of poor quality, they work together in Pain and Gain to produce a perfect dark comedy.

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