A nasty, inherently unlikable little piece of work that distances itself from its audience through both style and content, Pain & Gain nevertheless represents a welcome change of pace for director Michael Bay: it’s his first non-Transformers film since 2005’s The Island, and at a budget of $26 million, his least expensive since 1995’s Bad Boys.
The lower budget might have resulted in fewer explosions and less wall-to-wall action, but make no mistake: this is full-frontal Bay machismo overload, bursting at the seams with blood, sweat, muscles, and bimbos, coated in that slick 90s oily sheen and drenched in Miami heat. It’s the director at his most unrestrained, and whether it’s good or not (it isn’t) becomes irrelevant. It simply is.
The film charts the unbelievable-but-true story of Daniel Lugo, a Miami bodybuilder and con artist who, with some fellow gym rats and lowlife thugs, took to the kidnapping-and-extort racket in 1994-95. The story was detailed in Pete Collins’ excellent series of articles for the Miami New Times, which was adapted for the screen by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, who apply the general Hollywood fictionalizing of characters and events but stay relatively close to the facts.
An unnaturally beefed-up Mark Wahlberg stars as Lugo, portrayed in Pain & Gain as a dim-witted musclehead who convinces himself to become a “do-er” after attending a self-help seminar. It’s a far lighter portrait than in Collins’ series, which detailed a slick, even intelligent sociopath; here, there’s an aw-shucks, boys-will-be-boys attitude towards Lugo’s crimes, which take a surprisingly nasty turn as we venture further down the rabbit hole.
“I want everything you have,” he tells kidnap victim Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), “and for you not to have it.” And for one brief moment, the film connects with us. If only because Kershaw – half-Colombian, half-Jew, we’re frequently reminded – is an even more reprehensible, hate-spewing creature than our heroes. Only through Kershaw could Lugo’s braindead sense of justice and the American way – and how to achieve it – make any sense.
Assisting Lugo in his scheme – which is so left-field idiotic, it must have actually happened – are fellow meatheads Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), who has gone impotent through steroid use, and Paul Doyle (The Rock), a reformed addict and burglar who turns to Lugo after an incident with a priest.
Their plan: kidnap Kershaw and torture him, over the course of a month (!), while getting him to sign over everything he owns, including his house, his boat, his business, and his dog. Somehow, this works: Lugo moves into Kershaw’s suburban pad, takes over his sandwich shop business, and everything seems hunky-dory. People don’t ask questions, because they like the eager-to-please Lugo so much more than Kershaw.
Pain & Gain may follow the general outline of Daniel Lugo’s story, but it loses the true-crime fascination behind the case in tone, atmosphere, and general cohesion. This is not a realistic drama or tense thriller but instead a subversive comedy that revels in perverting the American dream: bulging biceps, huge tits, riding mowers on suburban lawns, piles of money baking in tanning beds, Jesus love, and self-help seminars.
When a giant, melted dildo turns up at a crime scene, I wondered if the filmmakers actually realized the brilliance of their imagery or stumbled upon it by accident.
And that’s kind of the problem with Pain & Gain. In concept, it’s brilliant. In execution, it’s a mess. By the time a sixth (!) narrator is introduced – more than halfway through the film, no less – you realize this thing is having identity issues.
And why wouldn’t it? Every single character here is dumb, vile, and vapid; we can almost feel the filmmakers scrounging around for someone, something for the audience to latch on to (Ed Harris’ P.I. comes closest, but doesn’t have enough screen time to make much of an impact).
Lugo and co. may be risible, idiot meatheads, but they’re ‘Murrican. Their God-fearing, money-making, impotence-overcoming values put them ahead of the ‘foreigner’ Kershaw. But Bay doesn’t really side with them, of course; it’s a subversive sendup that points at them and laughs. Vicariously, the director is pointing the finger at his own fans.
We expect no less from Michael Bay, and despite being one of his lowest-profile (and lowest-grossing) films, it is a seminal work: with no one reining him in, the director has delivered a sick, perverted meathead fantasy that vomits his trademark machismo all over the screen and then proceeds to rub your face in it.
Watching Pain & Gain is not a pleasant or even coherent experience (the closest comparison that springs to mind is Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers), but its mere existence is something to behold.