Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a guy with simple dreams. One of these dreams is to maximise his body’s potential via weightlifting and training. The other is to be filthy, stinking rich. To that end, after spending time in prison after running an investment scam, Lugo’s first legitimate post-prison job is at Sun Gym, where he turns the struggling gym of John Mese (Rob Corddry) into a weightlifting mecca with free body waxing and free memberships for strippers.
Turning a gym around is all well and good, but that’s not enough for Lugo and his friend Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), a fellow bodybuilder who is feeling the repercussions of years of steroid abuse. To treat his erectile dysfunction, he needs money. Lugo needs money, too. Fortunately, they have an appropriate mark in the obnoxiously rich half-Colombian half-Jewish Victor Kershaw (a delightfully slimy Tony Shaloub). The plan: take Kershaw for all he’s worth, with the help of Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a recently paroled ex-con who has turned to AA and religion to temper his penchant for incredible violence.
Kidnapping a guy and making him sign over all his money is one thing. Any fool can kidnap a guy and beat the crap out of him until he is compliant, though our three fools definitely have their fair share of trouble with that task. Getting away with it… that’s another story.
You have to give Michael Bay credit. For all his flaws, which we’re all familiar with, the man still knows how to do a fast-paced action comedy film. The Rock might be one of the best modern action movies ever. Bad Boys is a well-regarded cult classic. Even with a quarter of the budget of his usual giant explosionfests, Bay manages to create a good-looking film. Stripped of spectacle, Bay still knows how to make fast-driving cars and speeding boats look awesome visually, and he manages to capture the feel of early 90’s Miami without falling into the Miami Vice trap or the period piece trap. There’s a definite excess he’s reaching for, and he’s pretty successful for about half of the movie.
The other half of the movie shifts from madcap, almost slapstick comedy to some very brutal scenes of outright torture. When you taser someone once, it’s funny. When you taser them four or five times, beat them into submission, and keep them chained up for days at a time, it’s not quite as funny anymore, even if you are beating the kidnap victim with giant dildos. The comic tones of the first and third sections are kind of abandoned in the second and fourth sections of the film. In a sense, it’s two different films kind of pushed together. I think it’s just a casualty of Michael Bay’s aggressive style; everything is so in-your-face the whole time that it’s tough to not feel uneasy.
The fact that the most personable of the characters is also pretty upset doesn’t help create audience distance. Any of the successes found in the second half of Pain & Gain goes to the person of Dwayne Johnson. The former Rock turned actor puts in a brilliant performance here as both the movie’s moral center and its comic relief. Of all the characters in the film, Johnson’s Paul Doyle is the one that seems to understand just how far in trouble they really are, and to watch his personal life self-destruct as the sheer scope of what they did starts to wear on him is really interesting to watch. You wouldn’t think the professional wrestler would be the best actor of the main characters, yet here we are, and Johnson dominates every scene he is in, both literally and figuratively. His facial acting is impeccable here, and there’s a worried coked-up mania that he’s able to express that puts the character’s internal strife into the external realm in a very skillful way. He’s certainly more successful than Wahlberg and Mackie, who are a bit more limited by their characters.
The screenplay, from the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, actually seems like a pretty good script. It’s funny, the supporting players (Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, a brilliantly understated Ed Harris) get some good stuff to do during their limited screen time, and every major character seems to be pretty well defined. It also has the benefit of being based on a fascinating real-life story (which it follows pretty closely, and I recommend checking out the Miami New Times articles on the case by Pete Collins).
The problem, I think, is in the execution rather than the source. These are very good writers, and while the movie could definitely use a bit of a pruning at 130 minutes, it’s not as bloated as every Transformers movie has been. Ultimately, I think it falls into the lap of the director, who ultimately makes all the decisions on tone.
While not entirely successful though, there’s a lot to like about Michael Bay’s ‘little’ $20-million-dollar crime comedy, starting with some very good performances. If there was some way to unify the slapstick opening and fish-out-of-water middle with the vicious undertones, I think you’d have a more appealing movie. As it is, you have an interestingly garish black comedy.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan had a trial membership at a gym for 3 months, but didn’t get anywhere near pumped. On the plus side, he also didn’t get involved in any crime rings, so at least there’s that. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.
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