Grade: B -
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson, Tony Shalhoub and Ken Jeong
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hr. 10 min.
Was Michael Bay’s vision of American society actually its mirror image all along? Looking back, is it mere coincidence that in 1995 when Bay released Bad Boys, his first garish big-budget behemoth, about two Miami cowboy cops, the real-life Sun Gym Gang was in the throes of its brutal spree of kidnapping, torture, extortion and ultimately murder across South Florida? Is it coincidence that Pain & Gain, Bay’s latest feature 18 years hence, comes full circle geographically and, in some ways, thematically? [Between this and Spring Breakers, it hasn’t been a good month at the movies for The Florida Commission on Tourism.]
It is difficult to give Bay too much credit for seeing the story of Daniel Lugo and his band of muscle-bound murderers for what it is: an embodiment of the American dream on steroids. Based on a 1999 series of Miami New Times articles by writer Pete Collins, it’s set a modern-day milieu where everything is supersized, from abs to ambitions, from bodybuilding to Benjamins. Intent notwithstanding, Bay’s bombastic camerawork, slow-mo montages and oversaturated palette are the oddly apt canvas for a tale that even the director of Armageddon needs to continuously remind the audience is based on a true story.
In world divided between “doers” and “don’t-ers,” Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) fancies himself among the fittest former. A mix of moxie and make-believe, he ranks Rocky, Scarface and Michael Corleone among his personal heroes. And, his motivation is worthy of admiration, as when he exponentially increases membership at the Miami-based Sun Gym where he works as a take-no-prisoners fitness trainer.
One of his clients is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), an unctuous businessman with an ego as massive as his bank account. Spotting an easy and deserving mark, Lugo enlists his hapless workout buddy Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson, ever-improving), a hulking ex-con and born-again-Christian. Together they hatch a plan to kidnap and coerce Kershaw into signing over his fortune—money, cars, residence, etc.—to the trio. Lugo dreams of a life of mansions, backyard barbeques and riding lawnmowers; Doorbal wants to purchase injections to reanimate his steroid-shriveled testicles; Doyle, well, is a timid Lenny who finds wealth far more problematic than poverty.
Bay’s impulse to portray the Gang as bumbling beefcakes rather than monstrous meatheads works—to a point. There’s merit to lampooning the inanity of Kershaw’s month-long captivity and would-be murder, followed by the need for Kershaw to enlist the services of private investigator Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) after the Miami police refuses to assign credence to Kershaw’s unbelievable tale. But torture, dismemberment and homicide—both attempted and actual—merit far greater reproach than what’s typically reserved for the Keystone Cops. Pain & Gain’s comedy is pitch black, but it remains comedic nonetheless even at moments when a more agile director would recognize the need to modulate tone and deconstruct characters. Instead, Bay chooses odds ways to pull his punches, like couching any of the actual murders by the Gang as accidental.
But modulation is hardly Bay’s hallmark, and here is no exception. Dissatisfied with the satirical, Bay again indulges in the scatalogical, epitomized by an inexplicable scene in which a fat, incontinent patient leaves bile smeared all over the walls and floor of his hospital bathroom. In a story whose truth is already stranger than fiction, one character feeds his severed toe to a pet chiwawa. And in what universe does a gaggle of married male suburbanites, with their wives looking on, breathlessly volunteer to role-play a rapist attacking Doyle’s stripper girlfriend (Mindy Robinson) during an upscale Community Watch meeting? Misogyny? Check. Homophobia? Check.
In truth, Pain & Gain is a setting that cries out for Michael Bay’s filmmaking technique, but it’s a story that demands the satirical tone of the Coen brothers. Lugo may as well have been talking about Bay when he declares, “Some people don’t know a good thing when it’s staring them in the face.”