Can we sympathize with a villain without rooting for him?
Pain & Gain poses that question as it smudges the line between comedy and tragedy, daring us to pity the leads as they commit callous acts in the name of prosperity. If it was a work of fiction, advocating three muscle-bound goons as they shakedown Miami’s nouveau riche would be second nature, following in the footsteps of cinema’s storied history of exalted scoundrels. The only snag here is that the Sun Gym Gang was real and the violence they bestowed on their victims actually transpired, a harsh fact that lends a queasy discomfort to the film’s nihilistic passages of dismemberment and torture.
Told in a resolute voiceover that ricochets wildly between characters, Pain & Gain is a tale of “developing potential,” self-actualization gained through weight lifting, positive thinking and barbaric extortion. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is an enthusiastic, but simpleminded, personal trainer, rippling with muscle that tests the elasticity of his flesh, obscuring the inadequacy that lies just beneath the surface. Lugo’s spirited bouts of rhetoric carry a nationalistic thread, marrying fantasies of the “American Dream” to a bitter resentment of immigrants, speaking in hollow platitudes lifted from self-help seminars. His imagination knows no bounds, but reality finds Lugo as an average salesman with an above-average physique, suffering from a limited skill-set, empty bank account and severe case of mythomania.
Hearing opportunity knock in the form of sandwich mogul Victor Kershaw’s (Tony Shalhoub) unfiltered blabbering, Lugo takes note of the speed boat, off-shore accounts and Schlotzsky’s franchise, dreaming up a heist that will sufficiently milk the Colombian-born miser dry. Compiling a team that somehow exceeds his own ineptitude, Lugo places his trust in the ungovernable violent streak of Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and child-like naivety of reformed felon Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), an ill-advised measure that results in a bungled snatch-and-grab mission outside of Kershaw’s prominently-located deli.
Michael Bay mines the opening heist sequences for laughs, arming his small-time crooks to the teeth like out-of-work mercenaries and staging their failures with a frivolity akin to the Three Stooges. When the tone dramatically shifts and Kershaw is finally captured and looted, it’s intended to knock the wind out of us, paralleled by the victim struggling for breath as a plastic bag is forced over his head and his chest is pummelled with the bulbous end of a dildo. Bay precariously tips the scales even further, testing our limits, staging Kershaw’s forced suicide like an action setpiece, replete with a high-speed crash into a bulldozer, immolation and cranial trauma by way of truck tire.
As the trio circles the drain and their behavior becomes increasing ghoulish and sadistic, Bay sneakily wavers between stern glance and wink, leavening bits of bodily dismemberment with pitch black humor. When the boys ask for a refund on a saw with human hair kinked in the chain and Paul burns fingerprints off of severed hands on a charcoal grill, we’re dizzied by the drastic tonal shift, laughing out of disbelief as much as amusement. The baseness of the character’s actions and mean-spirited nature of the humor also curiously clash with the sleekness of the visual palette, an intended maneuver which mirrors the superficiality of the gang through the eroticization of symbols of wealth and veneration of their sinewy bodies.
At once humorous and harrowing, Pain & Gain purposely toys with our emotions, indicting the participatory nature of cinema and the allegiances it nurtures between audience and protagonist, despite the real-life implications of on-screen brutality. Whether Michael Bay intended for his viewers to question the ethics of aestheticized violence is up for debate, but the composition manages to strike a complex dichotomy between craft and content, succeeding as experiment, despite its culpability.
Pain & Gain (Paramount Pictures, 2013)
Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Pete Collins (magazine articles), Christopher Markus (screenplay) and Stephen McFeely (screenplay)
Photographed by Ben Seresin