To do a dark comedy takes skill as a director and as a writer. If you don’t go far enough you wind up falling flat. If you go too far you risk alienating your audience by being too bleak. It takes a deft touch to really pull off a dark comedy and the last director you’d expect to have it is Michael Bay. Bay’s best known for over the top, $200 million plus action films that are loud and obnoxious. Even his early work, smaller in budget (by his standards) turned up the volume for the clichéd action formula. Bay’s not a director known for being subtle or having any sort of deft touch when it comes to film-making. Which is why Pain & Gain is such an interesting film on its face; it’s a film made by a film-maker with a perfect idea of tone.
Pain & Gain follows the tale of the real life Sun Gym Gang, a group of bodybuilding enthusiasts who took a rich man’s possessions by torturing him into signing them away. And then they did it to another couple, as well, before finally being caught by police. It’s a standard tale of crooks trying to live the high life without having worked for it except for one thing: their tale is so ridiculously over the top and their shenanigans so ridiculous that it feels fictional reading it in retrospect.
Based off a newspaper article of the same name by Pete Collins that originally ran in the Miami New Times, if anyone else had made this exact same film they’d be calling it a tour de force about crime and the American Dream. But because it’s Michael Bay, who has a track record of making gobs of money at the expense of quality film-making, this film won’t get the due it deserves. It’s a shame because when all is said and done Pain & Gain might be the best film of 2013.
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a fitness trainer with big desires but no real work ethic to speak of. A sociopath, we meet Lugo becoming a personal trainer after a failed scam landed him in jail for a brief spell. He wants the high life but doesn’t actually want to work for it. Inspired by a motivational speaker (Ken Jeong) to be a “doer,” he enlists the help of two of his co-worker (Anthony Mackee and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to help him with a scheme. They’re going to rob a client (Tony Shalhoub) and take his things so they can live the good life. When his stuff isn’t enough they continue the process, leading to their eventual capture and the horrific details becoming part of Miami crime lore.
As much as the promotional materials for the film want to play up the screwball nature of the film this is a dark film, pitch black by Bay’s standards, and Bay manages to nail the tone perfectly. Dark comedies are tough to pull off and Bay wades deep into the depths of the human soul. This is the sort of film Harmony Korine wanted to make with Spring Breakers earlier this spring; this is about the corruption of the human soul in the name of the ‘good life.’ Lugo is a sociopath who wants to reach for things well beyond his grasp and doesn’t have the work ethic to bridge the gap between what he wants and how hard he’s willing to work for it. In Bay’s hands he’s a compelling character because he’s the sort of person who would view Bay’s cinematic oeuvre as a cinematic excellence.
Bay’s stylistic choices help to make the film work as well. Bay’s ability to blend camera techniques traditionally used in action films with a crime drama make the film stand out as well. Most crime films play it straight and try to stay away from the sort of tricks Bay uses for a Transformers film. This is a film that wouldn’t be confused for any other director in terms of its choices of camera tricks and music/scoring, of course, but Bay manages to keep the lulls at a minimum by making this a film aesthetically interesting as well as interesting as a character study.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s cast a trio of actors note perfect for their roles. Wahlberg’s the criminal version of his Boogie Nights role, Mackee the sidekick who should know better and Johnson the born again Christian lured back into the world of crime and drugs from which he’d tried to escape from. They have an easy chemistry together that Bay rides for most of the film. There’s rarely a moment when two of the three, if not all three, are on the screen and it’s a good call by Bay.
Pain & Gain plums the depths of the soul in only a way Michael Bay could pull off.
Director: Michael Bay Writer: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely based off the Miami New Times Article of the same name by Pete Collins Notable Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Rob Corddry, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson, Bar Paly