Producer and director Michael Bay is frequently derided – and often with good reason – for making ugly, soulless and incoherent spectacle films that have had a hugely adverse influence on contemporary blockbusters. Visually Bay’s over-reliance on fast edits and CGI has resulting in action sequences that are cluttered, bombastic and impossible to digest, but the constant loud sounds and furious movements create the illusion of excitement for non-discerning audiences, leaving everybody else just feeling irritated. Furthermore, Bay fills his films with jingoistic symbolism, simplistic hyper-conservative values, pornographic representations of women and cringe-worthy adolescent humour based on homophobic and racist stereotypes. The amazing thing about Bay’s new film Pain & Gain is that it not only seems like a parody of his previous films, but it seems to be a ruthless condemnation of the kind of people that his films most appeal to.
Often resembling a stylistically hyperactive black comedy that Oliver Stone could have made, Pain & Gain is based on a series of articles by Pete Collins that appeared in the Miami New Times in 1999. The articles were about a group of bodybuilders who kidnapped a wealthy gym client. While attempting to extort money from him the situation violently spiralled out of control. Bay’s version exaggerates everything sordid, outrageous and perverse about the events. A lot of the humour in the film stems from the ridiculousness of the situation and the stupidity of the bodybuilders, but as it progresses Bay takes the material into darker and more disturbing territory.
Bay’s complete lack of stylistic subtlety, which he once described as ‘fucking the frame’, is for once an asset. The world of the bodybuilder is one of self-delusion and fantasy, fuelled by steroids, testosterone and self-help mantras such as ‘If I believe I deserve it, the universe will serve it’. The rapid edits, self-conscious camera angles, excessive slow-motion and overbearing music perfectly capture the subjective world of bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) whose heroes are fictional characters from boxing and gangster films. And yet surprisingly, Bay is strategic about how he handles the acts of violence in the film. When Daniel and his gang are on the receiving end Bay opts for a delirious and exaggerated style to evoke laughs, but when acts of violence are inflicted on the gang’s victims, the scenes are handled to create discomfort for the viewer. In many ways Bay’s approach to representing violence in Pain & Gain reflects Quentin Tarantino’s approach in Django Unchained (2012) where violence alternates between cathartic spectacle and confronting horror.
While previous Bay films have rammed an extreme right-wing slant on American mythology down the throats of the audience, Daniel’s behaviour and attitude in Pain & Gain ridicules those who believe in the American Dream. In most other Bay films, a piece of dialogue describing American power as buffed would not have stood out, but in Pain & Gain it is said during an early monologue from Daniel that hilariously parodies patriotic rhetoric by comparing physical fitness to American global power. As an ex-convict for fraud turned gym instructor turned wanted criminal – who is inspired by a crass motivation speaker – Daniel embodies both the naivety and the sense of entitlement that comes with placing too much faith in the American Dream. He believes in the system but when the system does not deliver as expected, he blames external factors and then acts appallingly to get what he believes he is owed. The actions of Daniel and his collaborators in Pain & Gain can be read as extreme manifestations of a culture that is so wrapped up in its own delusions of superiority that when it inevitably fails it viciously lashes out and looks for scapegoats to place the blame onto.
While various racial groups are often stereotyped in Bay’s other films to provide moments of simplistic humour, in Pain & Gain racial stereotypes are perpetuated by Daniel in an attempt to justify his behaviour. Therefore the Jewish identity of their first victim Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) is embellished as part of the explanation for why Daniel felt he did not deserve his wealth and why he deserved to have it taken away from him.
While women are objectified for the audience in other Bay films, in Pain & Gain it is the characters who objectify women to compensate for their own failings. Stripper Sorina Luminita (Bar Paly) is an illegal immigrant who like Daniel is inspired by unobtainable Hollywood ideals; in her case the fantasy of a sex-worker being showered with riches as presented in Pretty Woman. Not only is Sorina another one of many vacuous characters in the film, but also she is presented through the eyes of the main characters as simply an object that symbolises their own perceived success.
Masculine sexual failing is further depicted via the other two major bodybuilder/criminal characters Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson). Due to steroid use Adrian is impotent, which is a source of much anxiety. Paul is highly homophobic, lashing out violently in one moment when suspicious of another man coming onto him, yet in a private moment showing a curious amount of interest in the large collection of dildos being stored in a warehouse the gang use to hold Victor in. After coming into money both men overcompensate for their masculine anxieties, with Adrian buying expensive penile erection treatments and marrying his nurse Robin Peck (Rebel Wilson) while Paul spends his money on drugs and Sorina, who has been passed onto him from Daniel.
What characterises both Adrian’s sexual dysfunction and Paul’s suggested sexual insecurity are the way the world of body building in the film deconstructs the body and repackages it as a product. The body is reduced to its functionality and no longer has any meaning beyond it being a collection of moving parts. In an early scene at a strip club, instead of being aroused by the performances around him Adrian talks about drinking human breast milk for its health benefits. It is a moment that completely desexualises the highly sexual setting, but also reduces breastfeeding to something perversely mechanical in the eyes of the characters.
In a much later scene where Adrian and Paul are flirting with the wife of their next target, they become more interested in watching each other display their strength by doing push-ups. These are guys who play the role of men with a sexual appetite for a highly constructed feminine ideal, but they are far more interested in enhancing the functionality of their own bodies. As Daniel, Adrian and Paul’s attempts at extortion become increasingly violent, the attitude of the body being a purely functional collection of muscles and bones takes on an even more sinister dimension.
Pain & Gain is a savage, grotesque and bizarre parody of the illusorily nature of the American Dream and the violence it can inspire. It is a condemnation of stupidity, greed and superficiality made all the stranger by the fact it is a Michael Bay film. Pain & Gain is more likely to be an anomaly for Bay rather than the beginning of a new direction, but it is nevertheless fascinating to see subject matter that actually suits Bay’s usually obnoxious approach to film style and storytelling. Pain & Gain is bewildering, fun, repugnant and enthralling.