Michael Bay takes a daring, creative approach to Pain & Gain, a story based on real life: he makes it look as unreal as possible.
Not that he’s doing much of anything that’s different from what he’s done with his previous nine films. He applies his distinctive, pumped-up style — constantly roving cameras, unusual angles, staccato editing, saturated colors, disharmonious performances — with great verve, if little variety and a off-kilter rhythm. Occasionally, it meshes well with the look and sound of Miami, Florida, where Pain & Gain is set, but that almost seems to be accidental, as though Bay kept swinging a baseball bat every five seconds, no matter if a pitch were thrown or not.
Still, Pain & Gain is a step away from what has become ordinary for Bay, and closer to his first feature, 1995’s Bad Boys. That too was made on a relatively modest budget, featured two men who played by their own set of rules, and was set in the Miami criminal world. Whereas Martin Lawrence and Will Smith were cops, however, Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson are criminally-inclined bodybuilders. (Note, however, that the new film is based on events that took place in late 1994 and early 1995, i.e. the same time period as Bad Boys.)
Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) works as a personal trainer at a gym he has made successful for owner John Mese (Rob Corddry). But Daniel wants more: he wants the American Dream, which to him translates into gaining as much wealth as possible while doing as little work as possible. He becomes convinced that personal success guru Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong) has the right idea, and somehow translates Wu’s platitudes into a scheme to kidnap Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), a new client, and soak the rich bastard dry.
To accomplish that, he first enlists the help of his fellow personal trainer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and then drafts newly-paroled bodybuilder Paul Doyle (Johnson) onto his team. Their scheme is wild and reckless and stupid; after kidnapping Kershaw, they discover that he’s unwilling to cooperate by signing over everything he owns to them, so they begin torturing him in the abandoned warehouse where he’s been stashed.
“Stupid” is the operative word here. The three bodybuilders are so dim that it’s a wonder they can tie their own shoelaces. Beyond their lack of intelligence, their core personalities are despicably self-centered and avaricious. Kershaw, as more than one character observes, is so unpleasant and temperamental that it’s difficult to pity his horrid situation.
To compensate, the film offers … not much more than a weak sense of humor and a strong sense of style.
The only vaguely moral character, a retired private detective and former cop (Ed Harris), arrives far too late to offer much ballast. The idea that “truth is stranger than fiction” is pounded into the ground. The attempts to puncture Daniel Lugo’s version of the American dream ring hollow. Even the personal success strategies sold by Johnny Wu fall flat as either satire or commentary.
Really, Pain & Gain plays best as the most stylish and overblown cautionary tale about substance abuse in movie history. The bodybuilders’ abuse of steroids and other drugs is depicted early and often, and so perhaps that can serve as a warning sign.
Pain & Gain opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, April 26.