Essays · Movies

Michael Bay’s ‘Pain & Gain’ is More Essential Than Ever

As it turns five, we look back at the smarter, more self-aware Michael Bay film that history may ultimately view as an essential look at today’s America.
Pain And Gain
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on March 15th, 2018

Some films are easy to reduce to a single shot. One isolated image, which carries the movie’s entire personality and purpose in its striking, swirling encapsulation of meaning. The Copacabana tracking shot in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is like this – a Steadicam whirlwind, it follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) through the side entrance of the club, past the line of waiting patrons, into the bustling kitchen, and finally into the club where they sit at a table prepared especially for them in the front row. As the camera’s movement captures all Karen’s excitement and growing attraction to her new beau, it lays bare the entire metaphor for the movie’s representation of its twisted American Dream – skip the line, take the shortcut, and reap the reward for as long as you can.

In Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain (2013), which celebrates its fifth birthday this year, there are many candidates for one single shot. Two stand out. The first appears relatively early, as a trio of bodybuilders, Danny (Mark Wahlberg), Paul (Dwayne Johnson), and Adrian (Anthony Mackie) attempt to kidnap their gym client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a rich jerk they see as their ticket to financial freedom. In a parking lot, they jump Kershaw, and Adrian slams a Taser into his neck. In a slow-motion close-up, a geyser of saliva explodes from Kershaw’s mouth. All of the film’s disgusting excess, its cranked-volume bravado, its splash-zone in-your-face viscera, lives in that balletic, soaring gob of spit, zapped out of a man’s face.

The second shot, however, gets at Bay’s other approach in Pain & Gain. It comes later when the trio’s kidnapping scheme seems just about to pay off. They’ve successfully bilked Kershaw of his money, after torturing him into signing over every last one of his assets to them. They have to get rid of the evidence, and reluctantly decide to kill their hostage by dousing him in liquor and running his car into a wall. With the car is in flames, the trio walks away from the burning, exploding wreckage, fulfilling their vision of themselves as professional dudes who can walk in slow motion while something blows up behind them. It’s a shot used so often in action movies that it has become an overwrought cliché, not least in Bay’s own films. However, Bay has another trick up his sleeve, which introduces a layer of irony – as the bodybuilders confidently strut towards the camera, Kershaw slithers out of the car, on fire, narrowly escaping the death trap they engineered for him.

Pain And Gain

Pain & Gain sits at the intersection of a grotesque, juiced-up American nightmare and Bay’s own willingness to poke fun at his cinema. From start to finish, it commits fully to its vision of America as a screaming carnival populated exclusively by desperate, broken maniacs hell-bent on achieving their own selfish desires. This is a land of excess, of violence, of noise, of fluids, of sex, of money, of death. Its heroes are monstrous exaggerations of men, their ripped physiques a metaphor for Americans’ tireless pursuit of more, more, more.

Ostensibly based on a true story, upon its release, Pain & Gain was often referred to in shorthand as “Fargo on steroids.” These are men who believe in an American Dream that they’ve seen in movies. In voice-over, Danny tells us “My heroes are Scarface, Rocky, and all the guys in The Godfather.” When they kidnap Kershaw, Danny adopts Tony Montana’s Cuban accent as an effort to disguise his voice. In Bay’s world, America is the sun-drenched Florida of the 1990s, muscle shirts and muscle cars, and a poolside seat perfect for staring at bikini-clad women.

On the film’s soundtrack, nearly every single principle character gets a voice-over. Danny, Paul, and Adrian each take turns narrating the events on screen, and Kershaw provides the victim’s perspective. Private detective Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris), hired to investigate the kidnapping, pitches in as a voice of reason. So does Sorina Luminata (Bar Paly), a Russian immigrant working as a stripper who gets passed between Danny and Paul. Taking a page from Scorsese’s Casino (1995), Bay’s multiple voiceovers further the film’s representation of excess – this is a story too big, too crazy, too American to be contained by just one storyteller.

And bigness is one half of the point. The film opens on Danny, hanging by his legs off the side of a building, doing crunches in the Florida morning sun. He’s screaming self-motivational bromides at himself: “I’m hot! I’m big!” Paul’s enormous, tattooed frame makes him an imposing threat to everyone, especially as his drug habit gets out of control. Adrian shoots steroids, pumping himself up so big and full of juice that he’s impotent, his testicles shrunk to the size of ‘Raisinets,’ he says.

Pain And Gain

Those Raisinets work against the movie’s surface-level commitment to its own raging balls. These are men who push themselves to the physical embodiment of brute strength out of their own fragile insecurity. The three men are relentless in their quest to prove their own masculinity and sexual virility. Anxiety about his impotence sends Adrian to a fertility doctor early in the film, where he meets a nurse named Robin (Rebel Wilson), who he will marry after the Kershaw payday. Paul’s homophobia explodes in fury at a local pastor who gives him sanctuary after being released from prison, when the pastor makes a pass at him. After Danny moves into Kershaw’s house, he becomes a role model to the neighborhood boys, as long as they’re straight – “We got no homos in this gang, right?” he asks.

It would be easy to criticize the film for its ugliness if not for the ways in which Bay complicates the trio’s male insecurities by undermining them at every opportunity. In Adrian’s relationship with Robin, she is the sexual aggressor, not him. Paul’s homophobia is undercut by scenes in the sex toy warehouse where they hold Kershaw hostage, where he shows curiosity in the vibrators and male sex dolls. Danny’s preoccupation with his own physical appearance and his close contact with his male clients at the gym constantly places his own sexuality in doubt. The movie creates a cyclical pattern of actualized masculine identity, which gives way to its destabilization and in turn sets its characters back on the path to reclaiming it once again.

Pain & Gain is vital evidence of the kind of filmmaker Bay could have been, and maybe still could be, if he ever stops blowing up robots.

This is the dynamic that forces the trio to undertake a second kidnapping attempt in the film’s last third. They conspire to nab and rob phone sex king Frank Griga (Michael Rispoli) and his wife Kristina (Keili Lefkowitz). In the scene at Adrian’s house when they plan to spring their trap, Bay repeats a camera move he previously used during a gunfight in Bad Boys 2 (2003), with the camera swirling in a circle between two rooms. In the weight room, Danny and Griga negotiate the phony deal that the bodybuilders have cooked up as bait. In the living room, Paul and Adrian keep Kristina busy, dancing and partying to the sounds of “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” Bay’s camera swoops through a hole in white lattice-work from the weight room into the living room and is sewn digitally to a similarly revolving shot passing by Adrian, Kristina, and Paul as he rips off his shirt and begins doing pushups. The shot continues, with another digital blend as the camera shoots through a spyglass hole in a floor-to-ceiling window, back into the weight room. The illusion of one continuous take, itself a gloss on one of Bay’s own shots, creates an ironic revision of his previous filmography, recycled to place these moronic bodybuilders in contrast to his Miami cops (Will Smith and Martin Lawrence), the more conventional heroes. They see themselves as action heroes, wheeler-dealers, men to be admired. Bay’s camera sees them as pathetic, desperate men playing out a game they’re too stupid to know they’ve already lost.

Pain And Gain

After the negotiation goes south, and Danny kills Griga with a dumbbell and Adrian sedates Kristina, the plan is thrown into disarray. In another one of the film’s signature moments, before heading out to get whatever loot they can from Griga’s house before disposing of the bodies, Danny stops to clear his head. He grabs a weight off the rack and pumping it, while the approving Paul looks on, coaching him. For these men, the pursuit of more money is only stalled by the pursuit of more muscle.

Pain & Gain is vital evidence of the kind of filmmaker Bay could have been, and maybe still could be, if he ever stops blowing up robots. None of his other films feels quite this immediate or, frankly, honest. Here, the spectacle of violence and chaos is given urgent purpose. The film wears its mania proudly, but not as an empty, soulless exercise in CGI and bad taste – instead, it is a hammering body blow right to America’s guts, delivered by a filmmaker marshaling all of his abilities in the service of unified, justified critique.

In the end, the film’s title is instructive. The movie’s vision of America is one where no gain is achieved without pain. In this zero-sum wasteland, you have two choices: inflict pain on others, or have it inflicted on you. “I don’t just want everything you have,” Danny tells Kershaw. “I want you not to have it.” When Bay’s camera looks in the mirror, it sees a distorted, fun-house reflection of a country where there is only so much to go around, and more will never be enough. The outrageousness of the film – with its escalating body count, language, exaggerated voice-over, racism, frenetic editing, absurdity, sexism, reckless cinematography, brutality, homophobia, nudity, and a charcoal grill simmering amputated hands and feet – is its smirking, satirical power. In its way over-the-top representation of an America where everyone (especially its men) feels entitled to take whatever they want, whenever they want it, and skip out on paying the bill, its five-year anniversary makes it an essential movie for this moment.

Celebrate. Give it another pump.

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Brian Brems is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master's Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.