I'm not sure what's more unbelievable about Pain & Gain, the true life story upon which it was based or the fact that this was Michael Bay's idea of a low-budget indie movie.
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) has a great body, but not a lot of brains to go with his delusion view of the American dream and a staunch sense of entitlement. After doing time for a Ponzi scheme, Lugo goes to work as a personal trainer at the Sun Gym in Miami. Formerly a rundown spot for old folks, Lugo turns it into a haven for the built and beautiful. However, he's not satisfied and spots a big, fat payday in his obnoxious client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Kershaw openly brags about his wealth, his offshore accounts, and the Schlotzsky's Deli he owns at the airport. Lugo hits on the idea to kidnap Kershaw and hold him hostage until he signs over all his assets. This ersatz mastermind recruits his best pal Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), a fellow bodybuilder who has been rendered impotent by steroid abuse, and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), an ex-con who has traded his coke habit for Jesus. After several bumbling attempts, the muscle-bound trio snatches Kershaw and tortures him for nearly a month inside a warehouse full of sex toys. Lugo and his crew are able to enjoy their ill-gotten gains primarily because Kershaw is such a prick that the police have a hard time believing or sympathizing with him. When Doorbal and Doyle blow their newfound wealth on penile injections and cocaine, Lugo is forced to abduct a new mark with disastrous consequences.
Pain & Gain is unmistakably a Michael Bay film even without the widescreen mayhem and deafening explosions. His garish aesthetics are simpatico with the bizarre, true-life events adapted for the screen by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America, Chronicles of Narnia). For once, it actually makes sense for Bay to populate the backgrounds with buxom babes since the story involves strippers galore. The saturated orange and teal color palette accentuates the sun soaked paradise of Miami. The camera whips along at a frenzied pace with super slow motion employed to great effect during a SWAT team raid. When Doyle barbecues a pair of dismembered hands to destroy fingerprints, an intertitle is stamped onto the screen to remind you that this is still based on fact. The question remains: is Bay just doing what comes natural or has he developed a sense of awareness that allows him to lampoon his own style?
As Bay flirts with the notion of self-parody, he walks a thin line between glorifying and condemning the actions of his characters. There's no doubt that these men aren't the least bit sympathetic, not to mention aggressively stupid. The fact that their brutality was played for laughs has upset the real victims of the Sun Gym Gang. The dark humor eschews closely to the works of Guy Ritchie or the Crank films. Stomachs may turn when chainsaws are broken out to chop up corpses or when a severed toe comes into play.
The cast really sinks their teeth into their respective roles with Mark Wahlberg excelling as the archetypal meathead. His Daniel Lugo is definitely cut from the same cloth as Dirk Diggler with a more sinister side. Tony Shalhoub brings Victor Kershaw to odious life while Rebel Wilson, Michael Rispoli, and Peter Stormare fill out the colorful supporting cast. Ken Jeong is thankfully utilized in small doses as a motivational speaker ("Be a do'er, not a don't'er") that inspires Lugo. Ed Harris portrays the straight man as a retired cop turned private investigator. He essentially takes on the Tommy Lee Jones role in No Country for Old Men as the one good man in an insane world. The best performance in Pain & Gain belongs to Dwayne Johnson, who bulked up to bigger proportions than he ever had in his WWE career. There's a naiveté initially displayed by Johnson that makes Doyle a gentle giant, then shows deft comedic timing when he reverts into a desperate coke head.
Pain & Gain is easily Michael Bay's best picture, which may be a backhanded compliment when his filmography includes Bad Boys 2 and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Rating: *** (*****)