People have used a lot of different words to describe Michael Bay and his films: “loud”, “blockbusters”, “mindless”, “soulless”, “Hitler” and, of course, “awesome.” One of the words you don’t normally associate with Bay’s undeniably successful output is “clever.” I daresay Pain & Gain is the most interesting movie the action auteur has ever made; the film is both seriously silly and surprisingly smart in how it presents its stupid characters.
“Unfortunately, this is a true story.”
Pain & Gain is based on the stranger-than-fiction true story of a gang of bumbling bodybuilders. Their sordid, mid 1990s tale was first chronicled in a three-part series by Pete Collins first published in the Miami New Times in 1999. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is an ambitious personal trainer in Miami’s Sun Gym. He’s also a self-described “doer” who believes the way to prove yourself is to better yourself. Daniel loves the American Dream with a vengeance — after all, America started off as a bunch of scrawny colonies before beefing up and becoming the world’s pre-eminent superpower — which is perfect, because his personal and professional role model appears to be Tony Montana. Instead of sitting around and waiting for freedom, equality and opportunity to come knocking, Daniel decides he wants what the other guy has.
Enter “other guy” Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a wealthy, nasty Sun Gym client. Daniel decides to kidnap and extort money from Victor, so he enlists the help of the only two people on the planet who appear to be even dumber than he is. There’s Daniel’s buddy Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and troubled ex-con/ex-drug addict Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), who is desperately trying to stay on the straight and narrow. Despite their best efforts, the Sun Gym gang actually gets a taste of success. Naturally, things inevitably unravel for these unstable losers.
With its $25 million budget — Wahlberg, Johnson and Bay each reportedly eschewed their usual salaries in exchange for a piece of the film’s back end — Pain & Gain is the cheapest film Bay has made since his 1995 debut, Bad Boys. It’s also the first movie he’s made that is based on true events since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Pearl Harbor. It’s not surprising Bay was looking for a relatively low-stress project between the massive Transformers movies, but he picked a deceptively touchy story to tell. Pain & Gain has already garnered controversy; some of the people connected to the real-life case are understandably not amused with the film’s comedic portrayal of some heinous crimes or the idea of the Sun Gym gang becoming big-screen heroes.
The film opens with deadpan voiceover narration from Daniel, who is on the verge of being caught by the police. Given this opening and the knowledge that all this ridiculous stuff actually happened — the movie dutifully reminds us this is a true story midway through, as if the filmmakers can hardly believe it themselves — means there’s no rooting for them to “get away with it.” More importantly, Bay and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely make it very clear from the very beginning these guys are troubled, terrible people. They are delusional to the point that Daniel thinks watching a bunch of movies makes him a criminal mastermind, while the other two guys are dumb enough to go along with it. Bay and the actors are totally committed to the Sun Gym gang’s stupidity; these numbskulls are too self-involved to wink at the audience. (They all get a turn at narrating the movie.) Pain & Gain is often very funny, but we’re always laughing at these dolts, not with them.
Boogie Nights is one of my favorite films, so I was delighted to see Wahlberg back in “delusional, frantic, alpha-male Dirk Diggler” mode as Daniel. There’s a sequence when he puts on a fake Spanish accent, which could be construed as a nod to people annoyed a Hispanic actor wasn’t picked to play Lugo. Johnson is terrific as Paul, and casting a physical specimen best known as “The Rock” as the gang’s weak link was a canny choice. (We interrupt this review for a very important question: why in the world did it take this long for Michael Bay and The Rock to work together?!) Paul is, perhaps, the least successful born-again Christian ever, and Johnson manages to make his spiral both funny and sad. Mackie (The Hurt Locker) is a comedic revelation as Adrian, who shares some funny scenes with the other guys and reliable scene-stealer Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect). I was also impressed by the great Tony Shalhoub’s commitment to being thoroughly unlikable as Victor, who is (hello!) the victim in all of this. The cruel joke is that the police, his family and employees aren’t exactly in a hurry to save Victor. Ed Harris — cool as ever rocking a fedora — turns up in the third act as a foil for the Sun Gym gang.
Of course, we’re still talking about a Michael Bay movie here; the guy isn’t going to ditch all his habits overnight. (Especially not when he has an R-rating to play with.) The Sun Gym gang holds Victor captive in a sex toy warehouse seemingly so one character can inevitably smack another around with a dildo and so that Bay can indulge in some juvenile humor. There’s also a thoroughly unnecessary bit of literal toilet humor, gratuitous slo-mo/fast cuts/swooping camera work (one violent sequence is a direct descendant of the Haitian shootout from Bad Boys II), and several upskirt shots of a model’s butt (Bar Paly grabs the baton from Transformer: Dark of the Moon’s Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). And if you thought you were getting out of this movie without a running joke about how steroids shrink testicles, then shame on you. That being said, the violence in this film — which, like all of Bay’s efforts, looks spectacular — is more impactful than what we’ve seen from Bay in a long time. It also serves as an effective reprieve from the twisted metal/CGI puppet fights the director has been staging most recently for the Transformers films.
Bay has always been accused of making dumb action films that felt like they were pumped full of steroids. I never expected the film that was literally about dumb guys who are on steroids to be his wittiest effort to date.