Michael Bay is routinely roasted and toasted for making the most cracked out, insane, testosterone-driven tentpole action features like Transformers, Bad Boys, Pearl Harbor and Armageddon. He’s aggressively uncool but enormously successful, and arguably the most influential American director alive. His boy-on-the-cusp-of-puberty visions of chiseled men, hot sluts, and entire cities rippling to the ground in poetic explosions have been released, regurgitated and reinterpreted, just worse, in an endless cycle lasting for almost 20 years now. He’s one of Hollywood’s few remaining rock stars, easily able to afford $75,000 in sex toys for a scene in a warehouse that lasts maybe five minutes. And more importantly, his sticky seed is everywhere, from every use of the word EDGE in advertising to the focus, money, and attention paid to gigantic, obscene disaster scenes.
His latest, Pain & Gain, is refreshingly self-aware and almost humble in its ridiculousness; not only conscious of how silly Bay’s world is (the characterizations are closer to Grand Theft Auto than any movie), but also how stupid its main squad is. Instead of flawless heroes grasping girls and shooting rockets out of the sky, the three fitness junkies turned kidnappers and extortionists played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie are callously manipulative, coked out, and impotent. The whole picture is a montage of complete fuck-ups digging their own graves and bumbling about in their body gloves and nut huggers, trying not to look as aggressively stupid as they are. The thought process behind every action is leaden with self-doubt and self-hate, distilling the essence of bad male behavior into this: a guy can’t get a hard-on and his spouse makes fun of him for it; so he kidnaps a sandwich shop owner.
Bay’s frenetic cutting and editing serve this “character piece” really well. The constant cuts make everything and everyone in the movie seem less real and incredibly hostile, like being surrounded by non-player characters in a neon video game hell. It’s like Bay’s universe is inside of a hard-on. There’s a scene where these exaggerated, ugly, sweaty, nervous and washed-up husbands are literally drooling over a beautiful bikini goddess next to their mouths-agape wives, noticeably frumpy and homely. There’s tons of homophobic stuff on the periphery, too: this and that is homo, can’t let the balls touch, don’t be licking pickles, Ahhh dude you’re so gay right after some gentlemanly appreciation of each others’ strong, developed bodies and rock hard muscles.
Steven Soderbergh’s recent talk on ”The State of Cinema” is immensely depressing, as he outlines why mainstream Hollywood movies are bad and getting worse every year: studios run by clueless executives that don’t know good ideas from trite garbage, and a public that desperately wants the most mind-numbing and thoughtless escape from an ever-increasing world mess. All of this is true. Most movies made by committee these days are trash. But, something like Pain & Gain knows its place well, and at least has a well developed aesthetic, even if it is the inside of a tween’s boxer briefs.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1992