Reel To Reel: Pain And Gain
Going Rate: Skip it
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub
Red Flags: Graphic violence, including running people over and cutting them up, graphic sexuality and sex acts, nudity, language
Director Michael Bay says he made Pain And Gain as a break from his stream of bloated multi-million dollar blockbusters, notably the Transformers series. So he picked a darkly comic true-crime tale from 1990's Miami, got Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson to star, held the budget to $22 million... and still ended up making a bloated picture. It's also gross, vulgar, and definitely not the crime comedy he thought he was making.
Pain And Gain recounts Miami's notorious Sun Gym gang, a crew of muscleheads which went down for two murders, one attempted murder, kidnapping, extortion, torture, theft and a rap sheet of other offenses. The gang is led by Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), a buffed-up ex-con and con man who talks his way into pumping up business at a flailing gym. Lugo is unable to translate his business success into a bigger paycheck, leaving him to live check-to-check in a run-down apartment and drive a car that could've been rejected from a Miami Vice re-run. He's personal trainer to Victor Kershaw (Shalhoub), a swaggering accountant and entrepreneur with a touch of Leona Helmsley: "You know who invented salad? Poor people."
I would think class envy would be enough of a motivator for a disgruntled working man unable to capture the American Dream, but no, the movie introduces us to the first of many bits of bloat. Enter Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), a throwaway motivational speaker injected into the picture to give Lugo more drive. Wu spits and spouts about "doers and don'ters," and Lugo takes it as gospel. He formulates a plan to kidnap Kershaw, take him for all his money, and kill him. Lugo recruits gym buddy Adrian Dorbal (Anthony Mackie), a steroid-injecting bodybuilder who is having -- and I say this politely -- virility problems and needs cash for treatment. The duo also pull in Paul Doyle (Johnson), a purported born-again Christian who's trying to stay off drugs and keep from returning to prison but somehow can't read his moral compass.
Lugo's gang cons its way into getting the tools they need for the job, but they don't pump up their smarts. Grabbing Kershaw happens only after several bungled attempts ("Mission Abort!") in crazy costumes. They bind and torture their mark and get him to sign his life away, but they fail to kill him, even after staging a car explosion and running him over twice. When a battered Kershaw fails to get the police to take his wild story seriously, he turns to aging private investigator Ed Du Bois (Harris). While Du Bois checks out the story with more than a healthy bit of skepticism -- Kershaw's ordeal sounds suspiciously like a drug-related crime -- the Sun Gym gang plows through their mark's plundered wealth, helping themselves to his cars, home and credit cards. Soon they realize they need more loot, and they plot another job that spirals out of control.
None of the film's characters, save for maybe Harris' and Johnson's, are likable. The picture enjoys submerging us in as much of Miami's sleaziness and sultriness as we can handle, as if the torture and kidnapping weren't enough. Miami's Chamber of Commerce should wince. The film paints the town as a haven for crooks, incompetents, derelicts, perverts, and every sort of human trash.
But Pain And Gain's biggest crime is injecting steroids into an already lurid and fascinating true-crime story. Right after seeing the film, I looked up Pete Collins' Miami New Times articles that inspired the screenplay. Collins' reporting contains enough character and plot twists for a solid script without the need for fabricated plot devices, fabricated characters (including the aforementioned motivational speaker), composite characters, throwaway sex scenes, and slowed-down shots of people getting hit by cars or blood dripping from a power saw. What's more, the film wants to be another GoodFellas or Casino with its frenetic edits and multiple narrative tracks -- good influence, poor execution.
Michael Bay is an action director and not a comedy director, and yet he tries to have it both ways, failing on both attempts. This film could be a straight actioner or a dopey gross-out laffer like The Hangover series. Like Lugo's schemes, it wants everything and ultimately gains nothing -- except for the box office money, of course.