Ironically, Michael Bay’s underrated black comedy based on the real story of three bodybuilders deciding to become wealthy by committing kidnapping and extortion set in 1990s Miami might just be the blockbuster director’s smartest film to date. MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS
Inspired by a motivational speaker, his movie idols (Rocky, or Tony Montana of ‘Scarface’) and the urge to accomplish his dream of being rich and successful, bodybuilder and personal trainer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) chooses to be a “doer” and recruits a team of his friend Doorbel (Anthony Mackie) and cocaine-addicted ex-convict Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) in order to extort Columbian millionaire and gym member Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) by kidnapping and torturing him. The plan does not go perfectly well – after several different comical mistakes their attempts to murder Kershaw fail and the victim, ignored by the police, hires a private detective to unveil the criminals and recover his money. Mowing his new lawn Lugo temporarily reaches everything he has wanted from the American Dream. However, as they consume most of Kershaw’s money, the team is forced to find another target, which results in an accidental double homicide. Eventually, they are arrested by the police – Doyle, willing to testify against his partners, is sentenced to 15 years in prison. Lugo and Doorbel are sentenced to death.
Bay’s unusually low-budget project is a grotesque tale led by anti-heroes whose biggest crime, according to private detective Du Bois (Ed Harris) is “being dumb stupid fucks”. Lugo’s character development is non-existent as he believes in himself and the righteousness of his acts until the very end of the film (admitting in prison that he might have wanted too much, but explains it with having too little before). While his motivation to achieve success and wealth is understandable, his statement of deserving to be rich is a shallow interpretation of opportunist Americanism, an idea guiding movie characters such as Tony Montana or Jordan Belfort of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street‘. ‘Pain & Gain’ is probably best described as a parody of this idea. It is able to misguide the protagonists of the film who contradict their own theory of freedom itself by robbing others of their money, or even life.
Supported by a great soundtrack, ‘Pain & Gain’ is an exciting mixture of the colourful, nineties fitness atmosphere, entertaining performances (interestingly, The Rock offering the most with his naive kindness and ‘Team Jesus’ faith), Bay’s slow-motion effects, fast cinematography, and the plot’s unique black humour counterbalancing even the most disturbing moments (such as the scene of Doyle literally grilling chopped hands). Apart from a few less original jokes (like the gun salesman screaming for a tase and most of Rebel Wilson’s scenes) the film is a yet unseen approach to the American Dream. Controversy around it is mainly caused by the fact that ‘Pain & Gain’ actually is based on real kidnap and murder cases. Although this concept might sound disrespectful to some, the accusation that the film symphatises with its characters is not true. Watching the film, the viewer, although entertained, feels the same way about them the private detective does – these criminals dressed as ninjas to commit a crime and lifting weights after murdering someone to ease the tension really are dumb stupid fucks.