Pain & Gain director Michael Bay has long since been a filmmaker of excess. Whether he’s destroying Alcatraz in The Rock, wiping out New York in Armageddon or simply kicking seven shades of metal with his Transformers franchise, this is a man who likes to turn things up to 11. For some time Pain & Gain, which is based on a true story, has been something of a pet-project for Mr. Bay and, given its characters over indulgence in all things big and bad, it’s a suitable fit for the director.
Set in the mid ’90s the film follows body builders Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), Paul Doyle (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) as they go about personal training and pumping iron. But Lugo is unfulfilled, tired of all his rich clients flashing the cash and convinced he’s destined for better things. So when one of his clients Victor – a wonderfully seedy and repulsive Tony Shalhoub – can’t stop bragging about his money, Lugo ropes in Doyle and Doorbal to help him kidnap, torture and eventually force him to sign over all his wealth to them. But as Biggie Smalls so eloquently put it “Mo money, mo problems”.
Pain & Gain is quintessentially a Michael Bay film. It’s over the top, is all flashy camera moves over any kind of plot and it’s littered with the director’s trademarks like he’s cut together a show reel from all his other features and thrown them into one – so much so that at one point Bad Boys fans will be certain he’s simply recycled stock footage from his debut film. You get plenty of low-angles looking up at our protagonists, Johnson in particular made to look even more Hulk like than previously thought possible, and it’s coated in the golden sunset Bay seems oh-so keen on.
The irony is that, like Bay’s direction, Pain & Gain is all about excess; these knuckle-headed beef-cakes have juiced so much they’re out of touch with reality, they’re always looking for the next high. The only way to pitch it would be Dumb & Dumber meets Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.
The film’s biggest problem is the outrageous nature of it all. How can this possibly be based on a true story? Are people really this dumb in real life? Thankfully Bay is in on the joke with us, throwing in a freeze-frame two-thirds of the way through that simply states, “This is still a true story”. It really is that unbelievable, more than proving the theory that truth really is stranger than fiction.
And therein lies the slither of enjoyment to be had in Pain & Gain; it’s so jaw-droppingly stupid you find yourself giving into its absurdity. Wahlberg plays it for kicks, giving one of his more animated performances in recent memory with a constantly wide-eyed look of gormless shock etched on his face. Mackie meanwhile has clearly juiced for the role but fails to really cement his character as anything more than a mindless jock. Johnson on the other hand is a highlight, fully committing to his role as an alcoholic convict who just wants to do right by God.
Like the characters at its core Pain & Gain is misguided, narcissistic, stupid and as vacuous as you’d expect from a film of this nature, that said it contains enough moments of too-ridiculous-to-be-true gasps to just about pull it off. It might not get you pumped but on the plus side it probably won’t leave you impotent.