Pain & Gain
There are two kinds of Michael Bay movies. There are the bloated, bland blockbusters like the ever-dumber Transformers franchise — current depths: Dark of the Moon — and then there are the action flicks like Bad Boys and The Rock that actually have some semblance of character and texture. Luckily, Pain & Gain falls into the latter category. It’s garish and overdone at every turn, but built around actual characters that are all the better for being based on real people.
The trial of the Sun Gym Gang was one of the weirdest events in the history of jurisprudence in Florida. And if you follow any amount of news out of the Sunshine State, you know that it has plenty of competition. Our cultural landscape is saturated with true-crime stories, and the Dunning-Kruger effect seems to play its biggest part among these criminal masterminds of Miami. These bozos are too stupid to know just how stupid they are.
The gang — at least this fictionalized version of the gang — is led by Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), whose drive, ambition, and can-do attitude has turned the gym into a bodybuilder’s Mecca, set apart from the nearby Gold’s that caters to a more suburban crowd. But Lugo wants more and faster results, which we might guess from the way he cheers on steroid use in the locker room. Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) knows well the price of steroids, and even better the price of the treatments to counteract the side-effects. And why should they struggle when slimy jerks like Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub) get to have it all?
So they cook up a little plan: they’ll kidnap Kershaw, force him to sign over all his worldly possessions, and then release him, penniless, having never seen their faces. And to add even more muscle to the plan they enlist recent parolee Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), who is still built like a brick wall even after being born-again.
Of course nothing goes according to plan. They do get all of Kershaw’s stuff and leave him a broken mess, but he still comes back after them with the aid of a private detective (Ed Harris). And when they decide to try the whole thing over again, things go even worse.
Wahlberg, Mackie, and Johnson are all great as these three musclebound stooges who don’t know when enough is enough. Wahlberg brings his usual deadpan intensity. “Trust me,” he says, “I’ve watched a lot of movies.” But the best performance here comes from Johnson. Not only does Bay make him look bigger than ever, he also gets the chance to show off his talent for comedic character work to an extent he hasn’t been allowed since Tooth Fairy. Johnson understands that being the biggest, strongest guy in the room is not really all that interesting, and he brings plenty more to love.
But it’s Bay’s own never-enough approach that keeps Pain & Gain constantly accelerating. By the end we’re screaming along through a series of whip-turns at the breakneck pace of a ferret on speed. Bay throws one cheap trick after another at us like Wile E. Coyote unloading ever more ludicrous hardware from a hidden pocket, hoping something will stick. It’s random and chaotic and makes no sense, but the frenetic intensity of the action playing out like a dark, demented, live-action Warner Bros. cartoon pushes that sort of consideration to the back of your mind as you hang on to see how these morons are going to screw themselves over even worse.
The concern has been raised that making a movie about the Sun Gym Gang might lead audiences to sympathize with these admittedly brutal criminals, two of whom are on death row. I don’t think it’s possible to sympathize with the characters we see, though; they’re too stupid to really cheer for, and everything they try is such an obviously bad idea that there’s no way anyone will try to imitate them.
Then again, they are showing the movie in Florida.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.