When I initially saw the trailer for "Pain & Gain," my reaction was, "How is this is a Michael Bay movie? Nothing blows up!"
Lest someone think that Bay is expanding his horizons, "Pain & Gain" is based on real events that occurred in Miami in the mid-'90s. Really, it practically wrote and directed itself, and Bay just needed to show up. The story is so ridiculous and over-the-top that it does fit in with Bay's body of work. Sometimes, it felt like he was trying to channel Guy Ritchie's directorial style in this caper-slash-dark comedy.
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a personal trainer at Sun Gym in Miami. He's made some mistakes in his life and has served some time, but he's been feeling empowered lately because of a self-help seminar. Instead of asking for a promotion or starting his own business, which would be considered normal outcomes, Lugo feels that he deserves to be rich without actually putting in the work. His plan is to find someone with money, take the money, and live happily ever after. He enlists his co-workers, Adrian Dorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), and they're off. Dorbal needs money to treat his steroid-induced impotence, and Doyle is a born-again Christian, teetotaler, ex-con and ex-cocaine addict. What could possibly go wrong?
Their target is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), who has started working out at Sun Gym and keeps bragging about his riches. After a number of failed attempts, the bumbling trio finally manages to kidnap Kershaw, imprison him in a warehouse, and torture him until he signs over his money and possessions.
A month later, the boys are living the American Dream, with beautiful cars, homes and women. It all seems rosy, but private investigator Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) has started looking into them, and they've run out of money and are planning another abduction.
Wahlberg has always been fit, as evidenced by his underwear-modeling days, but he bulked up some more for this role. It would look more intimidating if he weren't dwarfed by Johnson in both height and breadth. Wahlberg manages to imbue Lugo with some sympathetic qualities, even though he's a conman and master manipulator. Johnson is a riot as the wide-eyed, gentle giant. He wants to be a good person and do good deeds, but his IQ is no match for Lugo's charisma, and he's very easily swayed. Who knew the Scorpion King would — could — become a great actor? Mackie may be a good actor in his own right, but with Wahlberg and Johnson around, he gets lost in the shuffle. Also gracing the screen is Dorbal's girlfriend, Ramona Eldridge (Rebel Wilson). Wilson plays the comic relief role to a tee, and she's very believable in the more serious moments.
"Pain & Gain" is a little unsettling. The series of events is so ludicrous that it elicits laughter, but while you're laughing, you remember that this actually happened. This isn't the product of a creative screenwriter. Real people were hurt. Real people died. Real people are serving life sentences in jail. It's disquieting and you're chastened — until the next crazy, laugh-out-loud moment. When the credits roll, you're reminded that you're a terrible person who just laughed through this tragic tale.
Some of the survivors are offended that their heartache has been turned into a comedy, but if you compare the Miami New Times newspaper articles to the movie, most of the facts line up. Perhaps in the hands of a more nuanced director, the tale could've been told as a satire, but Bay presents the tale matter-of-factly, and that's that.
The movie states it's protecting the identities of the victims by changing their names. That's a little strange since they're not in any sort of witness protection and you can easily find their real names and photographs on the Internet. Perhaps the victims and their families wouldn't sign off on using the real names, but it's conveyed as the filmmakers trying to do the right thing.
"Pain & Gain" is a decent film, but it's difficult to recommend or dismiss. I figure that moviegoers will fall into one of two camps: those who don't want to watch a film that makes them feel uncomfortable, and those who don't know that the movie is based on a true story. Oh, and I guess there's a third possible group of Michael Bay fans. (Do they exist?) How those audiences react to the film, more so than the film's shortcomings, will determine its box office success.
"Pain & Gain" is rated "R" and has a running time of 2 hours and 9 minutes. It's showing in 2-D.
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