In America, you’re either a “doer” or a “don’t-er.” So says the hostile motivational speaker played by Ken Jeong, one of several supporting sleazebags tipping around the edges of director Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain.
What the self-help guru is selling, bodybuilder and gym manager Danny Lugo, played by Mark Wahlberg, is buying with a vengeance. The movie, based on the true story of a truly stupid group of pumped-up kidnappers and killers, wallows in steroidally jacked style and excess. Everything is supersaturated in flaming pastels or hot, rich neon. The images are packed with glistening muscle and bright, shiny, superslow-motion struts toward the camera, with something in flames as a backdrop. It’s Bay World. And after an hour of Pain & Gain, it felt more like Pain & Pain.
The story’s milieu of Miami bodybuilders, low-level miscreants and assorted human barnacles may be something different for the man behind the Bad Boys larks, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon and the Transformers trilogy. But Bay’s comedies are funnier when they’re funny by accident.
This could’ve been a great black comedy. The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely throws in every severed digit, smashed skull and snorted line of cocaine the writers were required to leave out of their Chronicles of Narnia screenplays. Pain & Gain derives from a three-part 1999-2000 Miami New Times series of nonfiction articles by Pete Collins. In 1994, Lugo and his hapless colleagues targeted a Sun Gym client for kidnapping and extortion. He was tortured, then crushed by a vehicle and left for dead. But he didn’t die. Others did, later, but not him.
The film takes the usual number of moviemaking liberties. Dwayne Johnson bulls his way through the role of recovering cocaine addict and alcoholic ex-con, alongside Anthony Mackie’s gullible personal trainer. Lugo’s kidnapping victim (fictionalized for the script) is a Columbian-American businessman (Tony Shaloub), a smug, insulting specimen, identified in glaring close-up by the Star of David necklace around his greedy neck. (Nobody, except for Ed Harris’ wily detective, comes off well in Pain & Gain, but still.)
I laughed—once—when, in one of Bay’s many freeze-frames, Mackie’s character is captured with a look of comical horror on his face at the latest unfortunate event in these criminals’ endeavors. Elsewhere, the jokes curdle. Bay’s touch is like granite. The look and nasty, insincere vibe of the picture carries the assurance of every Bay project. I’ll give it that.
Cinematographer Ben Seresin shoots digitally as well as on film, and the changing stocks and whirling perspectives may not be consistent, but that’s the idea: There’s always something, some grabby flourish or two-second shift in angle, to divert you from story or character. Composer Steve Jablonsky’s music may as well be scoring Bad Boys 3 or Armageddon 2: Armageddon Outta Here, so heavy-spirited is its ambient mood.
Bay doesn’t have the facility or the interest or, frankly, the moral filmmaking intelligence for real social satire. His idea of funny is a rump-level shot of a stripper getting out of a pool, followed by an abrupt cut to an obese woman’s thighs just as an off-screen character mutters the word “repulsive.”
Pain & Gain (R) ★☆☆☆☆