On social media, in the days leading up to the release of Pain & Gain, this pitch-black serio-comedy was alternately described by those lucky enough to see it in advance as “Michael Bay’s Boogie Nights” or “Fargo for idiots.” Both are accurate, and they’ll either amp up your excitement for what Bay has concocted, or will have you fleeing for the confines of your nearest art-house theater. Hopefully it’s playing Blancanieves.
Let’s be honest, though. If you belong to the latter group, you probably weren’t psyched for Gain in the first place. The bombastic director has as many detractors as he does supporters, and the release of any Bay feature usually inspires haters to bang the drums calling for Hollywood’s Ambassador of Explosions to sing a different tune. When will they realize that’s the equivalent of asking a zebra to drop its stripes?
Pain & Gain simultaneously frees Bay from Transformers jail – a creative prison he’s sadly ready to return to momentarily – and hands him the strongest story he’s had at his disposal in years. Set in Miami Beach, and inspired by a series of bizarre-but-true criminal activities, Pain & Gain centers on an entrepreneurial fitness trainer named Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), and his flawed plans for achieving a better life.
Lugo’s a quick-talking, slow-witted dreamer, the type of overlookable, everyday schmoe Wahlberg plays to perfection. A moldable lump of clay, Lugo falls for the motivational speeches of huckster Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), and is soon believing that the American Dream can be taken instead of earned. He recruits fellow down-on-their-luck gym rats Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) for a half-cocked kidnapping plot against Miami mogul Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub). You’ll shake your head at how spectacularly wrong things go for these men.
The same social media critics used their 140-character limits to praise Johnson’s turn as Doyle – a reformed prisoner trying to establish his Catholic faith – but Wahlberg, to me, is the reason to invest time in Bay’s intentionally distorted film. Is it Wahlberg’s own blue-collar Massachusetts roots that allow him to convey such empathy when playing losers who don’t understand why they can’t win? The actor transforms (no pun intended) while riding the roller coaster that is Lugo’s fruitless pursuit of financial success, and it’s a strange joy to endure this man’s fall.
The rest of the cast plays Pain large, because that’s how Bay operates. Shaloub lathers his loathsome millionaire in perspiration and indignation. Mackie is a legitimately funny sidekick who’s ready to carry his own feature, and soon. Ed Harris is a welcome late-game addition, reuniting with his Rock director to play a private investigator hired to sift through the rubble Lugo and his hapless crew leave behind.
Bay’s film would benefit immensely from an uncompromising edit, though most have said that of every Bay movie since the original Bad Boys (his only film to clock in under two hours). A streamlined, slim-downed, 90-minute version of this unbelievable crime story would hum along, yet Pain & Gain bloats to a 130-minute run time thanks to Bay’s characteristic detours into frat-guy humor and visually stylish excess. For the first time since 1996’s The Rock, however, Bay’s trademark theatrical flourishes and grandiloquent effects work don’t overwhelm the engrossing story or some noteworthy performances. And for Bay, that’s saying a lot.