A friend once maintained that Michael Bay would be an excellent, and equally successful, porn director. Mind you, this wasn’t meant as an insult; after all, Bay’s quite adept at visually lingering on a single bead of sweat, and his films are full of swaggering low angles and extreme close-ups of intense facial expressions. Try watching Bad Boys II again and take a drink every time a woman’s bare ass is visible. You will be wasted before the first hour concludes.
My friend’s humorous but nonetheless apt idea recurred constantly during Pain & Gain, especially during a scene in which Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, under the burning Miami sun, flexes while chugging a refreshing cola. He sweats charismatically, much to the delight of an elderly priest watching, who is subsequently assaulted for his voyeurism. The scene seems aimed to elicit screams of pleasure and manly nods of admiration. The late Roger Ebert called this “macho porn.”
Bay has been carving his own brand of macho porn for years, and Pain & Gain is the latest slice. It’s a another incarnation of Michael Bay Male-Fantasy Camp: a rag-tag band of brothers (red-blooded Americans), positioned as fearless role models for impressionable young men. These are serious dudes with the brawn and recklessness to tear the bad guys (usually non-Americans) apart. Whether oil drillers-turned-astronauts (Armageddon), fighter pilots (Pearl Harbor), or smart-mouthed cops with spectacular disregard for personal property (Bad Boys I and II), Bay wants you to salute these brave young American men—and in the case of Transformers, alien robot American cars—who proudly serve their country.
In Pain & Gain, however, there’s a twist. The three central protagonists (Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Anthony Mackie), like their Bay predecessors, have outrageously expensive taste, a hard-on for America, and a real appetite for destruction. This time they’re also juiceheads who want the American dream in the worst way imaginable. How do they plan on getting it? By kidnapping, torturing, and ripping off a rich half-Columbian schlemiel (Tony Shalhoub), who’s a patron at their hard-body-stricken gym. Woo!
The means by which they achieve their goals are absurd, but not absurd enough to be untrue. In case you forgot the title card at the beginning, or the countless subtitles tirelessly reminding the audience, “this is a true story.” And indeed it is: even though Bay filmed it to look like last week, the events took place in 1994 and ’95, and were the subject of some immensely entertaining coverage by Miami New Times journalist Pete Collins, which are the inspiration for the film. What really happened was as outrageous as this film—including the well-endowed strippers, the failed Halloween-costume-clad kidnapping attempt, and the fact that the victim managed to stay alive after countless opportunities to be murdered. I do have a hard time believing that the torture took place in a warehouse full of rubber dildos and female blow-up dolls. Whether it was the input of screenwriting team Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (You Kill Me; Chronicles of Narnia; Thor) or some outside influence, nobody knows. It’s an R-rated Michael Bay movie, the sex toys were gonna be thrown in there somehow.
Bay’s decision to team up with Markus and McFeely is a smart one. The blending of genres (the buddy movie and heist film are turned on their heads) and the obvious odes to Scarface, Boogie Nights and True Romance (everything starting out so right before going so wrong) feel inspired, and moments of comedy lurk beneath the lurid surface, particularly in the lead performances and co-star Rebel Wilson as Mackie's doctor-turned-wife. But at the halfway point, when everything does turn out wrong, the laughs are less at the absurdity of the situation and more at the dimwits running the show. Suddenly, Pain & Gain stops being darkly funny and becomes just plain dark.
Pain & Gain is a contemporary exploitation film; it was made for $25 million, which is cheap by Michael Bay standards. Rather than take its true crime caper inspiration seriously, it pawns off its real-life players as dumb action figures and has little respect for the victims involved either. Because the “true story” is chock full of materialism, racism, xenophobia, nationalism, misogyny, etc., it allows Bay to exploit these tendencies that run rampant throughout most of his films, to the point of exhaustion, all while making sure there’s plenty of homophobia to justify the male camaraderie. If he were trying to make a statement on how these cultural ills are a greedy man's downfall, that would be one thing. But since there are still Taco Bell endorsements, needlessly graphic dick-enlargement jokes and super-slo-mos of long saliva trails to be had, the depravity becomes the spectacle.