Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Bar Paly, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong
Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain is a film about the American Dream. The Dream is a fascinating theme and it has had a great variety of different artists approach it and give it their own spin by attaching it to different kinds of people. The central dreamer of this particular tale is an amoral, idiotic, self-delusional bodybuilder.
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a fitness coordinator and bodybuilder at a Miami gym. Though he is a success in his position, he becomes discontent with his place in life. He hungers for wealth and power, like his heroes, Scarface and the Corleone family. Along with his fellow trainers, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and the newly released convict Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), he starts to concoct a plan to extract millions from a rich deli owner (Tony Shalhoub) by kidnapping and torturing him.
His two cohorts are at first reluctant to join the plan, but they do after taking stock of their own lives and finding a similar sense of dissatisfaction. Doorbal needs to pay for some expensive surgeries to repair the damage his steroid abuse has caused. Though Doyle is a born-again Christian and unwilling to go back to jail, he is tired of living in a church with a gay preacher.
However, these three are no criminal masterminds by any stretch of the imagination. Whenever they actually plan their criminal actions, they go horribly wrong. When they wing it, it goes even worse. They only manage to succeed due to a great deal of dumb luck, with emphasis on the dumb. Their own stupid idiosyncrasies and appetites eventually push them to continue these acts, despite the evidence that they’re not suited for the job.
It’s very unusual to see a director like Michael Bay work on a dark comedy, much less attempt a satire, but it works better than you think it would. It could be his strongest film, but that’s mainly due to the strength of the core cast.
Anthony Mackie is a talented actor, with a profile that has been steadily rising over the last few years, and this film will go even further towards making him a household name. Wahlberg puts on an enjoyable performance as Lugo, and he really makes it fun to hate the meathead criminal. Shaloub also works to make us dislike his character, the first victim of Lugo’s moronic plans. By far the most interesting performance in the film is Johnson’s. Like in this year’s Snitch, Johnson gets to use his acting muscles along with his haymakers, and he uses them both to great effect. His Paul Doyle is at first a gentle giant, but he grows more conflicted and tempted by the trappings of the wealth he gains from their crimes. We’ve never seen a performance quite like this from him, and I hope this continues the trend of choosing different roles into the future.
Ed Harris enters the film in its second act, as a private detective hired to investigate the three and bring them to justice. Harris doesn’t stretch himself in the role, but he doesn’t need to, he’s fine just the way he is. Rebel Wilson also has a minor role in the film, and while she’s not on the screen for very long, she makes great use of it by providing some of the best comedic moments in the film.
Though it retains all the usual crude staples that Bay likes to use, Pain & Gain is a solid movie. The script is a well-woven yarn, tying some smaller insignificant things to the climax. Even some of the more unnecessary comedy bits go towards showing different aspects of character and advancing action. The tone of the film is a bit more like a see-saw, sometimes acting as a mild satire on the American Dream, and other times pointing out just how absurd this true story is. And of course, the viewer should be prepared for some jokes that are downright offensive.
When people desrcibe Pain & Gain, it’s inevitable that they’ll call it a Michael Bay kind of movie. It certainly deserves that, but should also be noted that among his filmography, it could very well be his best one yet.