What if a “real movie” looked like a Michael Bay movie? Pain and Gain is that project. This is Bay’s best work as a storyteller and filmmaker. In fact, it’s his only “film,” as he’s made a career out of making “movies.” And that’s fine. Sometimes, we need silly fun to clean the palette or to just admire in the way of aesthetic beauty, and in terms of Bay’s visual abilities, it’s inarguable that he’s a master of composition, camera, color, texture, atmosphere, and pyrotechnics. He’s at the top of the class when it comes to “blowing shit up and making it look fabulous in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen,” as The Rock, Bad Boys, and most especially, Bad Boys II, are genre touchstones, and I’ll always go to bat for The Island and the first Transformers. But make no mistake – Bay’s special brand of visual insanity is absolutely head-spinning when it wants to be, as almost always, he’s capable of astonishing visual sights. His use of saturated primary colors, all vibrant and slick yet still with some grit packed in there (hello, Tony Scott…), has influenced commercial filmmaking over the last 20 years. I’ve had a long, off-and-on obsession with this man’s robust filmmaking technique, as I think there’s a level of cinematic dynamism that is impossible to ignore.
But, with his long-time passion project Pain & Gain, Bay proved that he actually DOES have the ability to tell a multi-tiered story, complete with flawed and unlikable characters with smart pacing and witty dialogue. I also loved the upending of the idea of the classic Bay Hero, which is one of the most unique aspects of this fresh little black-comedy crime caper. The script was credited to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and it’s clear from the start that this won’t be another easy-to-digest popcorn movie or a $250 million toy commercial posing as a summer blockbuster. All three lead performances (an unnervingly stone-faced Mark Wahlberg, an extra-agitated and creeped-out The Rock, and Anthony Mackie providing some great moments of dim-witted comedic levity) are fantastically gross, while the movie revels in nastiness and a foul, wrongly-idealized version of the American dream. Tony Shaloub is viciously nasty, Ed Harris dominated the final act with a gruff performance of coiled masculinity, and there’s a great cameo from Michael Rispoli, who I always love seeing on screen. This was the movie that Bay forced Paramount to make in between Transformers entries, and it’s the movie he had been keeping in his back pocket for years and years. And it’s not hard to see why; the project is based on a true story, the Florida locale plays to Bay’s sexy visual strengths, and the characters leap of the screen. Whether or not you like them at all is your business. The script isn’t afraid to get down and dirty, as it‘s very clear that Bay felt energized about the notion of making an honest-to-goodness story without having long-lead conversations about marketing tie ins and lunch boxes.