If you think you know Michael Bay, let me tell you, you don’t know Michael Bay until you’ve seen Pain & Gain. You haven’t even begun to tap into the Michael Bayness of the world until you’ve stewed in two hours-plus of pure, unadulterated Michael Bay.
Pain & Gain sucks. It takes sucking to new, previously unexplored heights. It sucks so hard that the only logical explanation for its unmitigated suckitude is that Michael Bay must, in fact, be the son of Mega-Maid. Because he only has two settings: Suck and blow. And once Pain & Gain has sucked so much that its eyeballs implode from the internal pressure, it switches gears and blows. It blows hard, and long, and with the unrelenting precision of projectile vomit.
Here’s a Pain & Gain mad-lib: Pain & Gain sucks so much ( adjective ) ( noun ) that it blows ( adjective ) chunks.
There are so many up-angle, slo-mo, 360 camera pans that it starts to feel like every actor is standing on their own personal Sit ’n’ Spin. There’s shaky-cam, first-person shaky-cam, and the detestable SnorriCam, the most unflattering and motion-sickness-inducing camera shot as yet known to man. Pain & Gain is an ugly film, ugly in its aesthetics, its moral nihilism and its themes. And yet the colors are so bright and rich, vivid almost to the point of Pop Art. And Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson gives an absurd but completely charming performance as an ex-con falling off the wagon. And Ed Harris is beguiling as a laid-back Miami cop unable to stick to his retirement but who clearly loves his wife above everything else. And Rebel Wilson steals every scene she’s in and walks away with the final courtroom scene like it’s nothing. And there are Bonsai trees, which are always fun.
But does any of that save Pain & Gain from itself? No. It’s an ouroboros, but instead of a snake eating its own tail, this ouroboros is made of dog shit—it’s a dog eating its own shit and then shitting out more shit to eat. It’s an unrelenting pile of shit. And the sad thing is, in different hand—better hands—there’s a helluva movie buried under all that dead weight. Pain & Gain tells the highly entertaining and questionably “true” story of Daniel Lugo, a personal trainer who kidnapped and tortured a dude in the 1990’s in order to steal everything, and the whole thing ended in a double homicide. It’s tragic, yes. But as Ed Harris points out, even the victim is completely intolerable, a “half-criminal” asshole who may not have deserved everything that happened to him but who certainly wasn’t living the kind of life that would avoid it, either.
At its heart, Pain & Gain is a Coen Brothers movie. It’s about the American Dream and the perception and failure thereof, about masculinity and what it means to be a man, the notion of God and justice, and, of course, it has ever-escalating violence that grows until it reaches its inevitable, tragic conclusion. The dismemberment scene is straight-up Coen and is also one of the most effective sequences in the movie because Bay actually stills his cameras and lets his actors do the heavy lifting and the scene is a credit to screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (Captain America, the Narnia trilogy). It’s the most uninterrupted scene of actual writing and plot in the entire movie. It proves that if Bay would just let the writers write and not try and make everything look like a music video from 1996 that he can achieve something resembling cinematic success.
But he ruins it, of course he does. Because Bay cannot resist completely unnecessary and painfully redundant voice over (several times throughout the film the characters will echo their actual dialogue with voice overs that repeat what they just said almost verbatim). And this totally unneeded voice over is not limited to one point of view. Oh no, it’s not a real Michael Bay movie until everything is done TO THE MAX, and to that end, there are five narrators. It’s a ridiculous waste of time for a movie that runs a sluggish 130 minutes. The pacing is as horrible as one would expect—the movie is too long and too slow but yet jumps around like it was edited by a cokehead.
Pain & Gain is a ridiculous film, a complete waste of time and Ed Harris, even if The Rock does prove to have real (and underutilized) acting chops. It’s a soul-crushing exercise in excess and poor taste and amounts to no more than a turd Michael Bay crapped out and called a movie.