Why do I do this to myself? I went into Pain & Gain hoping for the best. Sure, I have generally detested director Michael Bay’s work going back to his mid-’90s hits The Rock and Armageddon, but this new flick intrigued me. It was made on a tight budget (reportedly $25 million, which is probably less than the catering bill on Bay’s Transformers movies) and tells a very adult story — about some moron weightlifters on a crime spree in Miami — that’s a far cry from the dumb kids movies Bay has spent the last decade shitting out.
In retrospect, the director should have stuck with the battle-bots. Pain & Gain is an insultingly stupid movie, one that goes out of its way to offend just about everyone (women, gays, anyone with a brain, etc.) while repeatedly missing the comedic mark. It’s crass, violent, absurd and wholly unbelievable, despite being based on a shocking true crime tale, reported in glorious detail by Miami alt-weekly New Times. Pain & Gain distorts and cheapens the real-life story behind the screenplay in the service of lowest common denominator entertainment. It made me embarrassed to be an American.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a lunk-headed physical trainer who gets hired on at Miami’s Sun Gym by promising to expand the clientele. Lugo fancies himself the embodiment of the American dream, a buff, smart doer who claims he’s not afraid of hard work, though he spends most of the movie avoiding it. He falls under the spell of a motivational guru (Ken Jeong) who spouts platitudes about following through on plans, which leads Lugo to an idea: Why not kidnap one of Sun Gym’s wealthy clients and force him to hand over all his worldly possessions?
Lugo enlists the help of co-workers Paul (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and Adrian (Anthony Mackie), and the gang sets their sights on Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), an egotistical deli owner with a nice house on the water. The joke is that these guys are so inept that they keep screwing up the crime. As such, it takes multiple attempts to grab Kershaw (some of them actually humorous, a rarity for this movie), but they finally nab him and take him to a warehouse/dry-cleaning facility that’s fully stocked with dildos (don’t ask me, I’m still confused) where they torture the guy until he signs his life away.
When it comes time to kill their captive, the morons screws it up and Kershaw escapes with his life — but the cops don’t believe Kershaw’s story and the gang essentially gets away with theft and attempted murder. Bruised and battered, Kershaw hides out and hires a private detective (Ed Harris) who gathers evidence and warns the cops that Lugo and company are going to get hungry and repeat the crime on some other victim. Which is, of course, exactly what happens.
Pain & Gain’s offenses are many, starting with the opening narration that states emphatically “This is a true story.” Don’t believe it. Yes, the movie is based on an actual crime, but Bay and his screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have liberally mucked with the facts, creating composite characters (The Rock, for example, is playing a composite of at least two or three people, none of which apparently snorted coke as prodigiously as portrayed in the movie) and inexplicably adding or removing details that almost always serve to dumb down what actually happened. Word is the real-life victims and their families are deeply upset. They should be.
Beyond that, what is the point here? I suspect Bay was trying to make a straight-up entertainment, but his idea of fun is about on par with a slow fifth grader who delights in setting ants on fire. The director’s infantile approach is exactly wrong for this material, which demands a thoughtful approach even as a comedy. But “thoughtful” isn’t what Bay does. In many ways, he comes off as a bigger meat head than his dim-bulb characters.
Wahlberg is fine as Lugo, who he plays as a dumb guy that thinks he’s smart (in reality, Lugo was a brawny smart guy with a sadistic streak — a much more interesting character if you ask me), a take that wore me out by the end of the film. The Rock is stiff in the early scenes, but I did enjoy his epic nose candy bender during the second half of the movie. Ed Harris plays the private detective straight, which makes him seem out of place among this cast of cartoon characters masquerading as people.
As the film plays out, the violence is amped up, bodies are dismembered, one character loses a toe and feeds it to a dog (again, don’t ask me, I have no idea why it happens), and Bay seems to think he’s made a rip-roaring dark comedy. He hasn’t. I’m not saying there aren’t people out there who will think Pain & Gain is a hilarious, entertaining flick. I just hope I never have to meet or hang out with them.