When a director is as critically and artistically reviled as Michael Bay (best summed up in this classic song from Team America) it’s sometimes difficult to admit that they haven’t always been terrible at what they do. Films like The Rock, Armageddon, and Bad Boys may lack the subtlety and originality of the truly great films of our generation, but they are, on the whole, entertaining blockbusters in a style that has been sadly lacking in recent years.
This is pretty much all Michael Bay’s fault to be honest, with a decade of films that are all at once dumb, bombastic, sexist, and interminably dull despite the constant crash, bang, wallop of CGI ‘action’ scenes. Bad Boys 2 started the rot, and by the time the third Transformers film rolled into town everyone but teenage boys and the toy manufacturers were praying for his career to be taken out the back and shot as humanely as possible.
Then something strange happened. I, along with other film fans of sound mind and body, suddenly got excited about a new Michael Bay film. Based on a fascinating true life story, and starring Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Pain & Gain promised something we never thought possible; Michael Bay attempting his version of an indie film. And you know what, it’s actually not a bad film.
The story focuses on Wahlberg’s character Daniel Lugo, a former fraudster who is trying to live a straight life while ferociously pursuing the American Dream. He spends almost all of his time at his gym, sculpting the perfect body while training clients to realise their full physical potential. His confusion of ambition and greed leads to a bizarre scheme that involves kidnapping one of his mega rich clients, and violently persuading them to sign over everything to him. The weak link in the operation being his accomplices; a born again Christian battling addiction (Johnson), and his best friend and gym protégé (Anthony Mackie).
What follows is both highly entertaining, and morally troubling. The central performances are brilliant, with Walhberg and Johnson giving their best performances in recent years. A brilliant mix of comedy, desperation, and outright violence; along with Mackie they are the glue that holds this film together. They are ably supported by Tony Shalhoub as the kidnap victim who you never feel an ounce of sympathy for, and Ed Harris who is brilliant, but also rapidly turning into Peter Weller by the day.
The troubling aspects of this film are two-fold. Firstly, Bay’s misogynistic themes are right to the fore here with his usual slow-motion shots of women’s scantily-clad behinds, or the off-hand way almost every male character treats the women in their life. Even more questionable is the tone of the kidnap and resulting scenes of violence and torture, especially considering we are constantly reminded that this is based on a true story. I’ve read the original newspaper article the film is based upon, and the protagonists are not loveable, misunderstood oafs, but calculating psychopaths. This revisionism leaves an exceptional bad taste in the mouth as the credits role and the obligatory ‘where are they now’ title cards roll.
It’s ultimately a very entertaining film, and at times matches Bad Boys for its gleeful style of pitting buddies against explosions and worst case scenarios. If you can leave your conscience and morals at the door (and I don’t blame you if you can’t) I dare say you’ll have a great time watching this film. The saddest thing about this whole project is that Bay appears to have treated it as a little holiday, and he’ll very shortly get back to making Transformers 4 and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot that nobody wants. Still, at least then I can go back to happily slagging him off.
Pain & Gain is released in UK cinemas on 30th August.