When I first heard of Pain & Gain, a kidnapping caper about three bodybuilders in Miami, I thought Michael Bay had finally found material that both suited his style and engaged him artistically. I thought I was going to get a movie about self-delusional arrogance, misplaced faith in the American Dream and a cautionary tale about the taking of wealth vs. earning it. A bizarre, almost surreal comedy that showed the most awful things happening to the most awful people. Not necessarily a celebration of generosity or perseverance, rather a nihilistic damnation of selfishness and avarice. Pain & Gain was not that film.
Instead what I got was a confused narrative that tried to condemn its characters for their reckless actions and reprehensible motives, but was made by people so impressed at the shamelessness with which they pursued the end goal of their despicable world view, they could do nothing to hide their admiration for these contemptible human beings.
The three members of the sun hill gang, as they were known, are at various points in the film ridiculed for their absurd stupidity and unjustifiable self-belief. At others they are romanticised and sympathised with in the same way that better filmmakers have portrayed The Kelly Gang, Jesse James or even Charles Raymond Starkweather. But so enamoured is Bay with the detestability of his characters even in moments such as these they just as ignorant, deranged and self-obsessed as they are when beating the bloodied face of a tied down man.
This film is undoubtedly Michael Bay’s attempt to make his gangster epic. Ever wondered what The Godfather would have been like if Bay was in charge? Well here it is. Deep, interesting and conflicted characters replaced with sun bronzed morons who can’t be conflicted about their actions because that would require having two thoughts in their heads at the same time. Detailed plots that echo the structure of operatic epics have been replaced with a bloated and tedious narrative that has the scene to scene lightning pace of a Goodfellas but never manages to progress the plot. You’ll be amazed how little gets done in so many location changes.
Bay desperately attempts to add some flavour to these bland exchanges by using his trademark sweeping angles, long tracks and rotating dolly’s. The camera can’t keep still; it’s constantly fidgeting as if it was just as uncomfortable as we are in the company of such awful people. The film is filled with techniques like this, empty visual tricks that expose the vacant and insubstantial philosophies behind this kind of materialistic film making.
But by far the most irritating thing about the film is the voice overs. You remember in Goodfella’s when the perspective of the film changes to the wife’s? You remember how original and clever that felt at the time? Here’s how Pain & Gain emulates that moment. By repeating it at least six times. It’s possibly the most indicative film making decision I’ve ever witnessed characterising the attitude of a crass filmmaker. Taking an iconic moment from a director he obviously idolised growing up and reusing that moment until (in one film) it becomes the most clichéd and tedious of tropes. It shows us how inept a creative he truly is. Not only is Pain & Gain a modern history of the worst trends in Hollywood cinema, but its legacy will retroactively degrade some of the best movies made by American film makers.
Pain & Gain is long, boring and morally bankrupt. And the worse thing is that watching it you get the sense that this really could be about as deep an act of film making as Michael Bay is capable of. He’s tried with this one, he really has. But every second he believes he’s matching the auteurs that he’s so desperately imitating, the more you realise he is not only missing the point, he’s incapable of ever getting what the point was.