The American Dream gets a serious steroid pump in Michael Bay’s black comedy based on a true story as knuckle-headed as its protagonists.
Hardly the most well-respected director to ever step behind the camera, Bay’s reputation in recent years has sunk to uncharted depths with the mind-numbing Transformers movies. Ahead of the fourth installment of a franchise that’s about as hotly anticipated as an axe to the head, he’s knocked out Pain & Gain, his cheapest film since his 1995 debut Bad Boys.
As slick as it is amoral, Pain & Gain has the look and feel of a 1990s Tony Scott film, wherein ultra-ambitious bodybuilder and Sun Gym staffer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) teams up with fellow personal trainer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackey) and ex-con and recovering cocaine addict Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to kidnap obnoxious businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and force him to sign over his considerable wealth to them. However, they don’t count on wily private detective Ed Du Bois III (Ed Harris) sniffing around, while greed gets the better of them when they decide to go after another target.
As is the way with most films ‘based’ on a true story, Pain & Gain plays fast and loose with the real life events that took place in Miami more than 15 years ago and adopts an exploitative tone all-too familiar in Bay’s films.
Billed as an action comedy, the film can’t seem to decide where its sympathies lie. It portrays Lugo as a meathead with delusions of criminal intelligence and a sense of entitlement to what he sees as the American Dream (ie having lots of cash), but Wahlberg’s likeably wide-eyed performance is such that you find yourself siding with him in spite of the murderous chain of events he sets off.
There’s no doubt that as an experience it’s head and shoulders above the lowest common denominator flatulence of Transformers, but Bay is too one-dimensional a director not to throw in big-breasted babes and violence-for-laughs when he can.
It’s a shame too, as Pain & Gain has moments that really spark, not least of which the sequence in Doorbal’s house in which Bay shows the wheels coming off for the gang by inventively gliding the camera back and forth between Lugo losing it in one room and Doyle and Doorbal getting increasingly out of control in the other.
Wahlberg has one of those faces that lends itself to playing normal working class guys and he does what he does best here as the naive ringleader Lugo. Mackay plays dumb without winking to the audience as Doorbal; a willing participant in Lugo’s scheme who’s too cowardly and greedy to escape when things get out of hand. There’s an amusing irony in the fact the steroids he’s abused to artificially pump up his body have given him erectile dysfunction, although it doesn’t seem to bother flirty nurse Robin (a great turn by Rebel Wilson).
The star of the show, though, is Johnson as the simple-minded Doyle. Originally pegged as a Schwarzenegger wannabe, Johnson has shown himself to be an actor with a lot more range than he’s often given credit for and here finds the right balance between gentleness and psychosis without ever going too big.
The supporting turns are also largely excellent, from Harris’ kind-hearted detective (bringing to mind Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson) to Shalhoub’s deeply unpleasant victim (“you know who invented salads? Poor people”) and Rob Corddry’s pathetic Sun Gym owner John Mese.
In many ways, Pain & Gain is the perfect vehicle for Bay’s testosterone-fuelled style. However, following an unnecessarily long 129 minutes you’re left wondering what another director with more vision and discipline and less bombast would have done with such promising material.