Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a personal trainer in Florida who, like most people, just wants to be rich and have the money at his disposal to do with as he pleases. He concocts a plan to kidnap a wealthy business owner (Tony Shalhoub) and force him to sign over his assets to not only himself, but two gymrat friends (Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie) who assist with the deed. And then all hell breaks loose.
While the film does suffer from all the usual Michael Bayisms that drive fanboys to lose their shit (super high contrast filters, fast edits, style over substance) it’s actually one of his all-time best films. While I am a lifelong fan of the Bay (but not fond of Pearl Harbor or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) this is his most successful project in terms of story and performances.
Mark Wahlberg (Ted) gives a suitably manic turn as the manipulative and charming leader of the kidnappers, Daniel Lugo. He’s actually likable regardless of the fact that he organizes some increasingly effed up stuff in the name of greed and he certainly looks the part of a bulked up weightlifter. The character is written as a sincere sociopathic moron and he pulls it off without a hitch.
I especially liked Dwayne Johnson (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) as the reborn Christian ex-con Paul Doyle. His character is so dumb and bumbling that it betrays his buff exterior in ways that are hilarious. He becomes especially funny once he resumes his old cocaine habit. Anthony Mackie (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is a good actor, but his character isn’t all that great since he spends the entire movie whining about his erectile dysfunction due to excessive steroid use. Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect) on the other hand plays an awesome foil to his mopey ways as his love interest.
Tony Shalhoub (Monk) is fantastically sleazy as the target for all the mischief as Victor Kershaw. While he definitely didn’t deserve all the stuff that happened to him, he isn’t exactly a saint either. Thankfully he isn’t written as a helpless victim and has a number of awesome scenes, especially the ones involving Johnson. Ed Harris on the other hand is underused as a private detective Kershaw hires to prove his wild claims about Lugo and company.
Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely take the source material, a series of news articles in the Miami New Times titled “Pain & Gain” by Pete Collins, tweaked details and combined a few of the people involved into a single character (Johnson’s Doyle) in order to simplify the story into something manageable. They did a damned fine job of it too. The sheer ludicrousness of the crime and the fact that the police didn’t believe Kershaw’s claims when found left for dead is fantastic material for a flick. Tthey run with it and somehow make it work. While it does go off the rails a bit toward the end it still fits nicely into the grand scheme of things and isn’t all that much of a leap in terms of the plot.
Michael Bay does let his crazy side out to play a few times and unfortunately his style takes away some of the impact of the story. Not Revenge of the Fallen crazy, but Bad Boys II crazy (that’s a good thing). He yet again finds a way to use his signature camera moves, like the high angle spinning dolly shot or the computer assisted multi-room dolly shots where the camera zooms through a hole in the wall from one room into the next and back again (it was used in the first two Transformers films and Bad Boys II). For the most part he reigns it in and appears to be trying his hardest to tell a story and not melt the collective audiences’ Medulla oblongatas with crazy visuals and special effects. Pain & Gain is a huge improvement in that aspect, and Bay thankfully avoids his usual racial humor (but not the goofy homoerotic humor he seems to find hysterical) in place of genuine laughs that come from the story and characters organically. He still has a lot of work to do in order to be taken seriously as a storyteller, but this is a step in the right direction.
When the end credits begin we are shown the real people involved in this oddball crime story, reminding us that it was true. It made me feel bad for laughing as hard as I did at certain parts. Real people died because of these people. In some ways it’s kind of detestable that the movie portrays the events in a comical light, but even if it was played absolutely straight it would still come off as funny due to how crazy it all is. That’s not an excuse for all my cackling during the film, but I’m okay with using that rationale to ease my conscience.
Just the fact that this gaggle of idiots managed to pull off the heist for the most part based on the charisma of one person is amazing. How easily it all came crashing down is just so. Pain & Gain is a great ride as long as you’re okay with laughing at someone else’s misery.