April 30, 2014

PAIN & GAIN And The Redemption Of Michael Bay

"Every man needs to fight for his dignity."
Michael Bay has been making the wrong kinds of movies.

It's easy to take shots at the low-grade dogshit he's been churning out for the last few years.  The Transformers movies are an ongoing exercise in cinematic embarrassment, a tsunami of visual clutter, muddled tone and flat humor with just a pinch of racism and homophobia.  That shit is so overwhelming that it'd be easy to write Bay off entirely as a hollow shell of spectacle and overindulgence.  The man's entire career has become all about making stuff that looks cool and sounds badass with little regard for stuff like storytelling or character development.  Bay is all slick affectation with nothing below the surface.

Which is why Pain & Gain might be his best movie ever.

Based upon the Miami New Times articles by Pete Collins (a very lengthy but totally worth your time read) Pain & Gain tells the horrifying true story of three bodybuilders who (after a few hilariously failed attempts) kidnapped a wealthy gym member, held him hostage for weeks, tortured him and forced him to sign over all his money and assets.  They tried to kill him and unsurprisingly fucked that up, but that didn't stop them from living in their victim's home, pretending to be CIA agents, and eventually trying to pull the whole thing off again only to see it all blow up in their faces.

The ringleader of the gang was Daniel Lugo, played by Mark Wahlberg in a performance strongly reminiscent of his best work with David O. Russell.  (I Heart Huckabees 4-Eva!)  Lugo is a lovable sociopath, a guy who's seen way too many action movies and who possesses just enough knowledge about the business world to be truly dangerous.  He can charm octogenarians and muscleheads alike, with a winning smile and a flawless physique that instills in him a confidence that belies his limited intellect.  Lugo can make his (even dimmer) cohorts believe that he is the man with the plan, totally in control and able to handle any situation with ease, whether that be a home invasion or a complex business deal.  Of course it's all a smokescreen, but what makes Lugo utterly fascinating is that even he buys into his own bullshit.  The guy actually believes himself to be a competent businessman, military tactician and criminal mastermind, when in reality he's all sizzle and no steak.

In other words, he's Michael Bay.

It's impossible to watch Lugo blindly throw around tactical terminology while outlining his various kidnapping plans without thinking of Bay's own military hard-on so prominently displayed in the Transformers movies, to the point that I can help but wonder just how self-aware Bay really is about the whole thing.  This is easily his best looking film in years, eschewing the gritty, palid high-contrast of stuff like Bad Boys and The Island in favor of the bright, saturated neons and pastels of Miami.  I saw this theatrically in 4K and it was absolutely breathtaking.  The whole movie almost plays like a feature length music video, overstuffed with hero shots, extreme closeups and American flags galore.  Bay shoots the movie the way Lugo sees himself: fast, furious and foregoing logic in favor of sheer badassery.  The film is a jigsaw of narrative devices that have no business being in the same room together and yet Bay manages to weave it all into a tapestry of sublime crazy that somehow works in spite of itself, not unlike Lugo himself.  Not only is there a copious amount of voiceover, but the film has a bewildering SIX different narrators and more needle-drops than a Run DMC album.  It's a batshit crazy true story told with rock-star flair, to the point that eventually it becomes hard to say who the real hero of the film is, other than perhaps Bay himself.

What's not difficult is determining the film's breakout star.  While Wahlberg is superb, he is upstaged at every possible turn by Dwayne Johnson, who is nothing short of jaw-dropping.  In fact, he's so damn good that when I recently described the movie to a friend, I refused to refer to Johnson as The Rock because he has unquestionably transcended his pro-wrestling persona here.  Johnson has always been charismatic and entertaining, but his Paul Doyle is nothing short of fascinating on every level.  A recovering coke addict who found Jesus while serving time for home robbery, Paul is earnest and lovable until he's suddenly not and he quickly plummets down the rabbit hole into absolute lunacy.  It's an incredible character journey, the kind of performance that I didn't really know Johnson was capable of delivering.  Of course it helps that he gets all (Every.  Single.  One.) of the funniest lines in the film.  If you still think of Dwayne Johnson as just a wrestler who makes action flicks, this is the movie that will forever change your mind.

We're getting a fourth Transformers movie whether we like it or not.  The fact that Shia LaBeouf has been run out of town is certainly encouraging and Mark Wahlberg seems to be able to key into Bay's particular brand of madness, maybe even enough to elevate the film above the level of utterly dreadful.  If Wahlberg can't do it, maybe giant robot dinosaurs can.  Who knows?  What I can say is that I don't give a shit.  I'm no longer interested in Michael Bay's big-budget franchises.  If nothing else, Pain & Gain proves without a doubt that Michael Bay's biggest enemy is excess.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but Bay needs to navigate away from $200 million dollar tent-poles and instead focus on smaller, weirder character movies that allow his peculiar sense of style to really take focus.  Pain & Gain might be completely ridiculous, but it also feels incredibly personal to Bay.  For the first time in a decade, he actually seems to give a shit about the movie he's making as opposed to simply collecting a massive paycheck and it absolutely shows in the finished results.  Unlike every other film Bay's directed since Bad Boys II, this isn't a chore to sit through.  In fact, it's an absolute pleasure.

Stop playing to the lowest common denominator and let your freak flag fly, Mr Bay.  It's the best thing you've got going for you.

---------------------------------------
Title: Pain & Gain
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shaloub, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeung, Michael Rispoli
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical 4K  - AMC Boston Common