“I don’t just want everything you have, I want you not have it.
Quite possibly, one of the most chilling monologues in modern cinema came from a financially frustrated Mark Wahlberg, guided by cinema’s top hedonist and pyrotechnics guru, Michael Bay. While his previous films had our heroes doing drug busts that would shut down the East Coast or stop an asteroid from hitting Earth, Bay’s more recent centerfolds see their accomplishment come in the form of a fully-fledged mercenary archetype. absorbed.
If you look closely enough at Bay’s filmography, you’ll see that his primary focus seems to capture his, or the masses, sense of the American Dream. Although these notions depend on heroism from the start (The Rock, Armageddon), it’s clear that things took a left turn in the last decade of his career, as did Bay’s relationship with the world of “go-getters” (or “Do-er”, in the case of Jonny Wu) that the West cultivated. By comparing two of his late career films, nearly two decades apart, the attentive viewer can discern an interesting exploration of what happened to America culturally, socioeconomically and psychically.
Excess for excess
Bay’s recent efforts might more easily be categorized as the anti-everything story. It doesn’t try to employ basic villains and outright evil in its narrative, there’s still room to relate (or at least half-empathetically) with the situational torment our protagonists receive. For pain and gain‘s Daniel Lugo and his partners, their main motive is annoyance with the arduous nature of their lives so far. They’ve put blood and sweat into perfecting what’s most important to them, hoping the rest will fall into place over time (and enough recognition of their pectoral muscles). When this does not materialize, we are now placed in a situation where entrenching their methods becomes a bit tricky. Money is still Bay’s mission, but the path to fame has gotten harder in recent memory.
pain and gain follows the frustration of Lugo and company with a plan of absolute psychotic idiocy. A personal trainer at Sun Gym in Miami, Lugo decides to take advantage of a client he discovers has excess money in offshore accounts. Lugo, after several failed attempts, falls head over heels into a man’s fortune he doesn’t have to delve into. The plan is detailed by Lugo almost as thoughtlessly as it is executed, and so the archetype of the man who thinks he has done more than enough to earn his share of the spoils is fleshed out. It’s half idealized, half warning of economic strife and the mental gymnastics used to try to escape a seemingly endless sense of disdain for the way things are. If you want something, you take it, by any means possible.
Daniel Lugo and mismatched inspiration
Lugo’s sense of self-worth, while abundant, increasingly ends up in the wrong places as the film progresses. Self-help mantras and motivational gurus are revered as spiritual beacons of inspiration for a man whose dreams were both exalted and crushed by a mid-century American woman who demonstrated the value of hard work, sometimes not always in its best light. He cites gangster movies like scarface and The Godfather as sources of influence, with their hints of bad luck conveniently glossed over.
While it’s easy to simply read Lugo’s character progression as one of slow wit and directionless passion, perhaps the most productive viewpoint is to see how those in his position have become misled. The film, set in 1994, occupies a specific set of Western ideals that are no longer applicable to the current generation. pain and gain portrays a generation of adults sold on maximalism, milestones and success that ruined the future, where millennials and gen Zs were frustrated in the dust of so-called pioneers with no regard for what would come after them . The robust individualism preached to the masses, with no real regard for its consequences on the community, leaves those born outside the sphere of privilege feeling that their dissatisfaction justifies something so malevolent.
With dreams of splendor and a lack of connection at any outlet, we are left with a tasteless reimagining of what the American Dream should or could encapsulate. Bay’s signature of elongated shots replicating the male gaze and almost disgusting wealth somehow coincide aesthetically with the brutality of the methodology employed by Lugo and his pals to get to a nauseating point of pleasure.
Ambulance: Michael Bay’s Modern America
Fast forward about 30 years. from the bay Ambulance sees its characters drop into 2022 with the same vexed complexion filtering through the camera. Although complacency in intention is replaced by unfulfilled intention, this basic idea of grabbing the world by the throat and squeezing what you want out of its mouth is still violently held. The film follows Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Danny Sharp (the ever-great Jake Gylenhaal), a lucky veteran and current blue-collar worker and his professional criminal brother, respectively.
Unlike the previous film, Will has done more than enough to earn his due diligence, but he’s dangerously similar to Lugo in his willingness to do anything to acquire his sought-after ideal. This on-the-go thriller prefers to see its heroes with valiant intentions begin to question their ways, as if the unduly confident characters of pain and gain grew and developed doubts.
Michael Bay’s Impossible Vision
For both films, and for Bay, the American Dream reads as something that, in the realm of modernity, is virtually unattainable without malice. Apprehension may plague some who attempt this path, but eventually those who hunger for this ideal will eventually make it to the top. The conservative ideal of kicking up your boots and doing it yourself takes on a whole different meaning for Bay than expected, especially in the face of a late neoliberal and capitalist America that prefers to have its wealth pre-established and its honor earned by the book. In these cases, it feels like our protagonists have already been born out of time to accomplish anything, ending up with the way things are as the best consolation.
Given this, the disgruntled, sometimes selfish male archetype finds an explosive new path in Bay’s films to pursue the life of excess they feel so rightful for. Money, brawn, and mistresses make up the men in Bay’s later films about the twisting and corruption of the American dream, an impossible mirage that people keep fighting for.