Whether or not Michael Bay has suddenly discovered self-awareness with Pain & Gain, it seems pretty clear that the filmmaker’s latest is his first to rise above his admittedly astounding ability to belittle anyone who isn’t a white heterosexual dude—or, you know, Optimus Prime. “White” and “heterosexual” are certainly words that typify Daniel Lugo, a body builder and gym manager at Miami’s Sun Gym who, in 1994, enacted a plan to kidnap a local business owner. The story is liberally adapted from Pete Collins’s riveting 1999 Miami New Times article about the long list of crimes that sent Lugo to death row, and the engrossing, near-absurd details that lined Collins’s reporting serve as the proverbial Pop Rocks to the two-liter of Coca-Cola that is the Bay id.
In Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s slyly ambitious script, Lugo’s (Mark Wahlberg) seedy criminal empire is boiled down to his criminal relationship with Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), an enthusiastic gym member, and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a born-again ex-con looking for a clean start. (Doyle is a fictitious hash of Lugo’s myriad accomplices, and in reality, Doorbal was married to Lugo’s cousin.) Lugo’s plan is to nab and bilk Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a successful land and food-chain owner who Lugo trains, out of his savings and property. The script’s tone is caustically satirical, linking obsession with physique and fitness with dominance, greed, and ravenous stupidity, which turns out to be the ideal frequency for Bay’s oft-grotesque visual bombast. This triptych’s brutal murder of a porn king, Frank Griga (Michael Rispoli), and his favored arm candy, Krisztina (Keili Lefkovitz), make for a far better fit with Bay’s penchants for vague necrophilia and gushy executions than even the most bizarre moments from his notorious Bad Boys II.
If Pain & Gain only relocated Bay’s surpassingly cynical vision to a fuller, more comically advantageous narrative terrain, the film would likely be no more than a mere promising pleasantry, but Bay goes further. He cleverly ditches any sign of the egregious sentimentalism and cheap heroism that have often pickled his otherwise plainly dumb actioners, and by consistently engaging a sense of dark comedy in the story, the director seems to let the pseudo-patriotic façade of his style rot away. And he proves impressively adept at balancing the script’s most daring conceit: Lugo shares voiceover duties with Doyle, Kershaw, and Ed DuBois (Ed Harris), the private detective who helps Kershaw track down his kidnappers and extortionists after they’ve bled him dry and left him for dead. The tactic gives the story an unexpected emotional and philosophical breadth by splintering the film’s point of view, and Bay never makes the device feel over-extended or forced.
Nevertheless, Bay has delighted in every moral infraction, tactless gag, and histrionic posture available to him throughout his career, and he hardly seems to have gone full turncoat on crass juvenilia. For Doyle and Lugo, the past is filled with humiliation, shame, and, yes, prison, but Bay amplifies their idiocy rather than risk finding common ground with them. Doyle even shows regret over his past, but his determination to get on the right track is constantly, comically undermined. Pain & Gain is a bit too brash to align with a sudden change of heart in the filmmaker, but there’s an unmistakable sense here that he’s completely comfortable wallowing in the dregs of humanity. Bay never directly empathizes with the main trio, but nor does he deny the remarkable thrill and magnetism of their dumb, swaggering doings.
Instead, Bay finds his moral center in DuBois, who opines to his wife by film’s end that some people can’t see the good of what’s right in front of them. There’s a classical, worn-in charm to the private investigator, not least because the ever-excellent Harris embodies him, and Bay sinks him into a distinctly nasty reflection of Miami’s neon-lit nightmare. The director brings the city’s decaying underbelly to rueful life through a host of unhinged supporting turns, from Bar Paly and Rebel Wilson to Rob Corddry and Ken Jeong. Pain & Gain is a feverish entertainment that never feels bogged down in buoyant condemnation, but one can feel a palpable, even desperate distancing taking place between Bay and his lead bruisers. Like Lugo, Bay is still essentially less a thinker and more a “doer,” but at least now, he seems secure enough to let all his perversities hang out without false modesty or cheap grandeur.
For those who tap into Michael Bay’s unseemly aesthetic, it’s likely Paramount’s transfer of Pain & Gain will come on like manna from heaven. Clarity is excellent from beginning to end, whether in the strip club or at prison choir practice, and the tawdry, burnt-out colors of Miami have rarely popped so sensationally. Black levels are lovely and inky, and the sense of detail and texture is astonishing in every frame. The audio is equally wondrous. Dialogue is loud and clear out front with Bay’s hearty mixture of sound effects—the gunfire sounds are adequately impactful—and a lively soundtrack that includes tracks from Coolio and C+C Music Factory to "Stranglehold" and "Can’t You Hear Me Knocking" filling out the back nicely.
Paramount jacks up the presentation of Michael Bay’s unexpectedly bold Pain & Gain with a top-shelf A/V transfer, but, perhaps purposefully, give no extras to help reveal the film’s origins or themes.