Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain” is a true crime movie on steroids, which is just the kind of film you would expect to get from the man behind the “Transformers” franchise. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Tony Shalhoub, among others, “Pain and Gain” is a ludicrous comedy at times and a gruesome drama at others, but in any case it’s an enjoyable film as long as your expectations aren’t too high.
“Pain & Gain” tells the story of Daniel Lugo (portrayed by Wahlberg), a bodybuilder and gym employee living in Miami who takes the idea of pursuing the American Dream to a whole new level. After hearing a motivational speaker, Lugo adopts the motto “I am a doer” to rationalize his plot to kidnap and extort one of his gym’s customers (played by Shalhoub). With the help of his gym rat friend, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie of “Gangster Squad”), and the humongous born-again Christian and ex-con Paul Doyle (The Rock), Lugo mounts a hare-brained scheme that eventually spirals out of control.
The story is so far out of right field that practically every action of Wahlberg’s gang of muscle-bound wannabe criminals will elicit a guffaw or even cause you to burst out laughing. With every crazy stunt these guys pull, you will have to keep reminding yourself that somehow this is all based on a true story. At one point, Bay even goes out of his way to stop everything and plaster “This is a true story” across the screen. The story is all over the map, and by the end of the movie’s overly long runtime of 129 minutes, you are left with a feeling that what you just saw had even less substance than one of Wahlberg’s many tank tops.
Leading up to the movie’s release, Michael Bay revealed that “Pain & Gain” was meant to be a side project for him, a low-budget movie to distract him from the “Transformers” films for a time. However, Bay brings in a lot of the same filming techniques that you would see in one of the “Transformers” movies. Slow motion and first-person shots are commonplace throughout the movie, as well as a lot of quick cuts to try to accent the action on screen. All of these techniques together make the movie feel a bit contrived, but you won’t mind them when you get to see The Rock knock out a guy in slow motion while wearing one of his many “Jesus loves me” T-shirts.
The acting is something else that this movie could have bulked up on. Wahlberg and Johnson took pay cuts in order to keep “Pain & Gain” under its $25 million budget, and their acting abilities seem to have been cut along with their paychecks. Wahlberg’s Lugo never really seems to advance past the one-dimensional character of a guy who feels entitled to more money just because he is an American and super buff, and that’s a shame. If Wahlberg could have brought some of the same acting chops that he brought to a movie like “The Fighter” or even just “The Other Guys,” he might have been able to bring the movie to a whole new level. Instead, he flounders halfway through the movie as Lugo gets in way over his disillusioned head.
Johnson’s portrayal of Paul Doyle also feels like an opportunity missed. Here you have the perfect actor for the role of a gargantuan bodybuilder, and instead you get The Rock crying in the corner when Lugo’s promise of “nobody getting hurt” is broken. Come on, man. In a way, the movie might work out better with the subpar acting. Bay gives no inclination of trying to get moviegoers to stop and think about what is happening on screen. He just wants the absurd facts to carry his film to success; he chooses to sacrifice questions of moral ambiguity, common sense and motivation in favor of some close-up shots of over-the-top violence.
In the end, “Pain & Gain” is a passable action movie that will surprise you at almost every turn with its outlandish but true storyline. There’s only one explosion that is very unlike Bay, but he counters with enough low-brow humor to keep you entertained. The action can get pretty visceral at times, but it is definitely manageable. If you do go to see the movie, be ready to experience some pain but not much gain.