It’s no secret that Wes alum Michael Bay ’86 has been critically maligned throughout most of his career. Some of this criticism is perhaps unfair—“Armageddon” and the first “Transformers” film are big and brash in the best way, even if they aren’t narratively complex. So when “Pain & Gain,” Bay’s newest film, was rumored to be his most thoughtful, there was a strange mixture of hype and trepidation surrounding the film. Unfortunately, the label of “thoughtful” is something of a misnomer; “Pain & Gain” ultimately suffers from a lack of cohesion, even if it is sometimes stylistically interesting.
“Pain & Gain” focuses on the true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a bodybuilder who, along with partners Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie from “The Hurt Locker”) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), kidnaps a wealthy businessman (Tony Shalhoub) in an attempt to achieve the American dream. The story is actually somewhat interesting, if at times ridiculous and disgusting (which the film explicitly acknowledges).
Where the film tends to suffer is in its screenplay, which seems to try too hard at being overtly commentative. The film opens with a speech comparing America to a bodybuilder (Wahlberg calls it the “most pumped-up country in the world”) that comes off as a bit clichéd. Also problematic is the first-person narration that comes in each time a new player is introduced to the plot. It’s an interesting tactic that works at times—specifically, the use of this narration as the three main characters are introduced is effective—but eventually results in a lack of focus as more than five characters narrate the story.
There are, however, bright spots in the screenplay and acting, and surprisingly, Dwayne Johnson is one of them. His character tries to be the moral compass of the film, as a former convict turned born-again Christian. Still, temptation catches up to him. His story is by far the most compelling, and if the film is trying to be a satire, his plotline is the most compelling evidence of this, as he is faced with temptation after temptation to revert back to his criminal life. One can wish that the narrative had focused more on him.
Stylistically, too, there’s a bit of growth from Bay, who steps back from his exhausting “Transformers” style of sequencing to offer something with a bit more humility. True, he suffers from some of his other known problems, notably focusing the camera far too long on scantily clad women and editing that feels a bit sporadic. But the action sequences are also well choreographed, a welcome change from “Transformers,” where they were so dizzying that they were impossible to watch. Slow motion is generally utilized well to highlight key points and shifts in the narrative.
Title-cards and text are arguably the strongest addition to Bay’s style; in one instance, as Johnson (spoiler) snorts cocaine, the side-effects are listed in blocky text as a narrator reads them at breakneck speed. Little instances like these show a slightly more sophisticated style from Bay. Hopefully, with a better screenplay, he can use these tactics in the future.
“Pain & Gain” certainly isn’t a bad film. It’s big and altogether fun to watch. There are specific techniques that elevate the movie above the level of other Bay films. But, at times, it suffers from a lack of narrative cohesion that detracts from the experience and makes it difficult to enjoy. If you want something challenging, this film will definitely disappoint. But if you want something entertaining and generally bombastic, “Pain & Gain” might just be worth your time.