REVIEW: Michael Bay's Physically Punishing 'Pain & Gain' Is 'Fargo' By Way Of The Three Stooges
Pain & Gain
The large-scale destructiveness he has previously wrecked upon public and private property (including entire cities), Michael Bay visits on the human body in Pain & Gain, a pulverizing steroidal farce based on a bizarre-but-true kidnapping-and-murder case. Suggesting Fargo by way of the Three Stooges, Bay’s latest certainly proves that the Transformers auteur does have something more than jacked-up robots on his mind: specifically, jacked-up muscle men who will stop at nothing to achieve their deeply twisted notion of the American dream. With a very fine ensemble cast recruited to play an array of overtly despicable characters, this unapologetically vulgar, sometimes quite funny, often stomach-churning bacchanal will surely prove too extreme for great swathes of the multiplex crowd. But the marquee value of topliners Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson, plus the pic’s reportedly modest $25 million pricetag, spells more gain than pain for Paramount’s box office pecs.
Given that every Bay film is something of a stamina test, marked by passages of intense exhilaration and paralyzing fatigue, with Pain & Gain the director may have lucked into the most fitting subject matter of his career: the world of obsessive bodybuilders and the trainers who push them beyond the brink of exhaustion. Adapted by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger, the Narnia trilogy) from a series of articles originally published in the Miami New Times by Pete Collins, the film tells of one such muscle mecca, Miami’s Sun Gym, where staff and clientele include a liberal mixture of strippers, ex-cons and small-time scam artists.
One such hustler is Sun Gym manager Danny Lugo (Wahlberg) who, in the fall of 1994, decides to abduct one of his clients, wealthy Colombian-American businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) — and defraud him of his net worth.
To aid in the scheme, Lugo recruits two accomplices: personal trainer Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and former Attica inmate Paul (Johnson), a recovering alcoholic and junkie who found Jesus during his last stint in the slammer. After a couple of near-misses (in real life, there were several more), the trio — decked out in ridiculous Halloween costumes — succeed in nabbing their mark, who they sequester in an abandoned dry-cleaning plant and, over the next 30 days, force to sign over all of his worldly assets, including cars, a local deli franchise and a gaudy McMansion in a posh gated community.
In Collins’ reporting, the story of the Sun Gym gang reads like an inordinately malicious bid for the good life by a bunch of overcompensating he-men whose musculature vastly outpaced their intellect — their staggering incompetence rivaled only by that of the Miami-Dade Police, who, when Kershaw (in reality, Marc Schiller) miraculously survived to tell his tale, initially refused to believe him.
While sticking largely to the facts, Bay and the writers are clearly aiming for something bigger: a commentary on American self-entitlement and, to an extent, the very sort of ra-ra, macho posturing Bay has proffered without irony in many previous films. In contrast to the unconscionable thug he seems to be on the page, the movie’s Lugo is more of a harebrained dreamer who sees himself as one of life’s “doers,” high on self-help mantras and a sense of his own inviolability. Wahlberg’s deft performance, which plays on his innate likability to conceal his character’s ultimate menace (a side of the actor little seen onscreen since his fine turn as the psycho boyfriend in James Foley’s Fear), is one of the film’s (few) unqualified pleasures. But the movie’s cynical subtext, and whatever Bay is ultimately hoping to say with it, remain mostly undeveloped.