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I sat down to watch the Michael Bay crime-comedy ‘Pain and Gain’ with the iconoclastic reviewer Mark Kermode’s critique still ringing in my ears. As the journalist made more than clear, this was not a movie that appealed to him:

“(It) was absolutely loathsome and morally repugnant and vile and evil and bad.”, he sighed with his usual laid-back, folded arms, schoolmarmish shtick.

Having a lot of respect for Kermode’s judgement on this art-form, I fully expected to loathe the film myself. And ultimately, yes, it is a haphazard work in parts, filled with lumpy, half-digested ideas and jokes in questionable taste. But for the first half hour, it can’t be denied, I was strangely enthralled.

I won’t go into the plot. Just know that the story and the crimes depicted are based in fact and that it all grows increasingly ridiculous as things go on. I only want to talk here about the opening, because this is something that – even if it was meant satirically – struck a chord deep within me.

Mark Wahlberg’s character Daniel is the film’s narrator and for the first half an hour, he explains to the viewer exactly why America is great and how this relates down to the conduct and attitude of the individual.

He informs us that be believes in physical fitness, self-starting, body-building, masculinity and self-reliance. He notes by way of illustration the example of US history; the story of a colony that went on to dominate the world through guts, determination and a terrifying kind of self-belief.

As I say, this is all meant to be a satire on the American mindset, and the film later tries to make nonsense of the opening premise. Still, I found myself in agreement with every word Wahlberg’s character spoke. He described in a simple and powerful way, the aspects of America I most admire. I also think the linkage between physical fitness and philosophy is a valid one.

I took up bodybuilding a few years ago under the influence of the work of Yukio Mishima. I really don’t think there is a better or more virtuous hobby available to a person, especially to a man. Bodybuilding doesn’t just build muscle, it builds confidence and ambition. It opens doors in the mind. The increase in dopamine triggers goal-orientated behaviours. I can write a thousand words in one sitting after working out. I feel more sure of my views, less tolerant of doubt, moderation and of those who would dare oppose me. This is the way nature inspires us. With every kilo added to your routine, you justify yourself. Bodybuilding – unlike intellectualism – counts for something in the Darwinian game. I may be able to write well (or so I’ve been told) but what does literacy matter in the end? When the struggle is unleashed and the contenders amass, I won’t be writing the enemy to death. To be a man, one has to be prepared to be a brawler, a thug even.

A well-built body is the physical manifestation of a determined mind; it is the ‘will become flesh’ – to quote Mishima. It is also an ideal metaphor for the American can-do attitude that is infinitely superior to the drizzling self-deprecation of England.

D, LDN.

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