Wednesday, August 14, 2013

'Pain & Gain' (2013) directed by Michael Bay

Michael Bay's crimes against cinema, art and basic human decency are manifold.  If there were some kind of Nuremberg Trials for shitty directors he'd be one of the first hauled in front it.  His films are hi-gloss and pornographic, shot through with misogyny, homophobia, hooting US exceptionalism and a bloodcurdling quasi-fascist 'might makes right' philosophy. After a series of mind-bendingly loud blockbusters he expressed a desire to make a smaller, more personal, low-budget film, something a bit more intimate than robots confusingly clanging off each other.  The product: Pain & Gain, a tale of murderous criminal Mami bodybuilders complete with exploding cars, speedboat chases and lots of oodles slow motion. This, rather unsurprisingly, is Michael Bay's idea of 'intimate'.  

What is surprising is that Pain & Gain is absolutely brilliant.

This is the true story of the 'Sun Gym Gang', a three bodybuilders in 1995 who hatch a plan to kidnap and extort money from prominent local businessmen.  The 'brains' of the operation is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a personal trainer sick of his low-paid job as a fitness instructor.  Day after day he's confronted by rich clients living the glitzy, sun-kissed American Dream.  He wants a piece of the pie, so, pumped up on boneheaded "be a DOer not a DON'Ter" self-help philosophy decides to take what he feels is rightfully his.  

His partners in crime are Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson).  Adrian is slowly slipping into steroid psychosis, obsessed with the idea of becoming bigger, manilier and more assertive.  Ironically, the more he doses his muscles, the smaller his dick shrinks and the worse his impotence gets, a vicious circle that fuels his anger and delusions.  Paul is similarly also delusional, a born again Christian/raging cokehead fresh out of prison.  He's the most loveable of the three, essentially a big child unable to control his impulses.  Tragically, he knows he's doing bad things but lacks the integrity and self control to be able to stop himself.   

Dwayne Johnson about to smash somebody in the snotbox.
Tonally, Pain & Gain owes a big debt to the Coen Brothers.  The driving factors in the narrative are stupidity, incompetence and greed, making this a sort of hi-octane trash-chic reimagining of Fargo.  Comparing Michael Bay, the paragon of artless 'cinema as product', to the Coen Brothers feels like blasphemy, yet consider for a moment how regularly Bay casts Coen regulars like John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand in his films. We see the same sense of warped horror/humour shining through in both their works; there's a dismemberment scene here that is tonally identical to the woodchipper scene in Fargo - the laughs originating from the same shocked audacity.

I'm not going to say this is as good as a Coen Brothers film; even though this is a vast improvement in his style, Bay still crowbars in gags about explosive diarrhoea,  fat people having sex and impossibly dumb comedy bimbos.  In addition, Bay's lens is magnetically drawn to women's asses, if someone walks on screen with a thong on you can all but guarantee that in the next few seconds you'll get an awkwardly angled crotch shot.  There's also a predictable smattering of macho homophobia: Johnson's enormously built Christian decks an elderly priest who makes a pass at him and Wahlberg's character instructs children never to "put a pickle in their mouth" and straight up threatens them, "don't be a homo".

This is classic Michael Bay and in the Transformers series it's poison, normalising discrimination and cementing stereotypes in the heads of the audience.  In this movie it fits like a glove.  From moment one we understand that we're dealing with moronic characters living in a moronic world.  When homophobic dialogue is delivered from the mouths of these characters it doesn't feel like an endorsement in the slightest.  By using extensive voiceover to precisely outline just how dumb and self-centred our leads are Bay effectively blocks us from feeling any kind of empathy for them (though Johnson's character does gain our sympathy).

But what's most surprising is how totally the film demolishes the testosterone fuelled machismo of the American Dream.  Chief thug Lugo is obsessed with becoming bigger and more powerful in every possible way, repeatedly equating physical fitness with the "American Dream".  He operates under the capitalist delusion that if you work hard then success is guaranteed to come your way.  It works in bodybuilding: lift enough weights, eat right and you'll end up looking like a Greek statue.  As far as economic success goes, nothing is assured.  You can bust your balls every single day of your life and still wind up at rock bottom.

Pain & Gain goes for the jugular, equating the narcissistic physiques of his hyper-muscled leads to McMansions, speedboats, mountains of cocaine, breast implants and gaudily coloured Lamborghinis.  By the end of the film he's comprehensively shown us that these are empty symbols of success, band-aids ineffectually plastered over the gaping moral wound in consumerist hearts.

That this message is so consistent and so powerfully conveyed makes Bay's directorial style much more palatable.  The quick music video cuts, the hi-saturated colour, show-offy CG cinematography and top 40 trash-pop soundtrack become eerily appropriate.  Bay creates a hyper-real world, perhaps best illustrated when a character dives into a Miami canal to escape the police and finds himself swimming through a tropical aquarium.  It doesn't make any sense.  It's utterly incongruous.  It totally works.  

This is by no means a perfect film, but it's delivered with enough dark humour and style that any iffy moments are quickly papered over.  The three leads give great performances as violent and scary dunderheads, with Dwayne Johnson standing out in managing to make a violent coked-out hypocrite into something half-loveable.  It is to no little shock that I discovered everything that Michael Bay is capable of taking everything that's given him such an awful cinematic reputation and intelligently flip it on his head, making his worst attributes work for him.  

Here's hoping he ditches the Transformers franchise as soon as possible and makes more great films like this.

Pain & Gain is on general release from August 30th

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