I’m not sure whether the appropriate genre for Pain & Gain is comedy or thriller, but I am sure that it’s a story that the cosmos made specifically for Michael Bay. There’s bulked-up dudes, strippers, midgets, stereotypical gay guys, Miami, explosions, slow-motion, and cocaine and the ’90s. Mark Wahlberg is Daniel Lugo, a fitness instructor with the kind of intensity and single-mindedness that makes you feel like he’s constantly comparing his body to everyone else — and addressing each one according to rank.
His boss is the slightly-schlubby John (Rob Corddry), owner of the Sun Gym in Miami. And his best friend is fellow gym-jockey Adrian (Anthony Mackey).
That the movie opens with Daniel getting chased by the cops is a revelation that we know things won’t end well for Daniel, but the reasons take their time to unfold. We learn that Daniel’s a self-proclaimed go-getter — obsessed with his image and the idea that through physical perfection the rest of the world will lie down before you.
His heroes are Rocky, Scarface, and Don Corleone, suggesting that his understanding of reality comes from the movies and even then, he’s only read the Cliff Notes. He takes a seminar with Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), one of those motivational speakers who similarly preaches that nothing in life is worth learning if it can’t be written on a note card or reduced to a buzzword.
He meets Victor Kernshaw (Tony Shalhoub), a fast-talking Uber-Jew who owns the local Schlotzsky’s (remember those?) and offers advice, whether solicited or not, on how to make money. Daniel has a different take, however, and decides to kidnap Victor, make him sign over his money, property, and franchise, and then, well, he’ll get to that part when he gets there.
Recruiting Adrian and another muscle-head — ex-con addict turned hyper-Christian Paul (Dwayne Johnson) — their plans hit snag after snag culminating in multiple attempts (all unsuccessful) to kill Kernshaw, including, but not limited to, filling him full of coffee liqueur and crashing his Beamer, lighting him on fire, and…well, let’s not spoil the whole sequence.
Kernshaw goes to the police, who have trouble accepting that he was abducted by body-builders, and then to private investigator Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris), who has surprising difficulty gathering evidence of the moronic trio’s crimes.
The film is based on a true story about a gang of kidnapping body-builders who terrorized Miami in the 1990s, and while I can’t speak for how true to life the script is, Bay himself inserts a few footnotes reminding us that, yes, some of the most outlandish sequences were taken straight from the actual events.
But it doesn’t really matter whether they are or aren’t; what matters is that Bay has found the perfect script for him to direct. Where the excesses of the Transformers films, such as 45 minutes spent with Sam searching for a job, were plodding, here they fit the desultory and scatterbrained nature of the story. These guys are basically making everything up as they go, and a scene or two that has them singing Christian rock with a gay arms dealer or convincing a stripper that they work for the CIA or harassing the angry midget who owns the motel or crashing through every fruit stand in the Bahamas or beating up a gay priest may or may not tie in to the plot, but they’re still fun to watch.
Wahlberg, Shalhoub, and The Rock are good choices, too. The Rock especially is given free rein to ham it up, and the harder he tries, the more strangely compelling he is to watch. Shalhoub is king of the fast-talking pricks and always welcome to see. Wahlberg is able to charm despite portraying an utterly horrible human being. And Ed Harris, it’s so good to see you back. Don’t ever leave us again.
The only other note — not even a criticism really — is that Bay eschews any sense of morality. If anything, he seems at times to almost excuse his criminals. There’s an immensely satirical theme to the story with Daniel’s God-complex and self-entitled worldview, but it appears to soar over Bay’s head. The excesses and extremes — bulging muscles, comic portrayals of violence, humongous boobies — up on screen underline the point, but all the while Bay seems just as guilty as Daniel in celebrating them, or at least not approaching them with a shred of irony. I think all of us have wanted, at some point or another, to see one of those gym-jockeys get put in their place, to get into their heads and deconstruct their sense of superiority, but, you know what? We have an entire genre dedicated to the moody high-schooler/jock fodder, and I’m exhausted from sympathizing for them. And I can give Bay crap for not having the balls to explore his story’s theme, but, in a weird way, I think it took bigger balls not to.
Whatever. Pain & Gain is Bay at his best — big, funny, and totally watchable.