The Three Muscleteers
At the beginning of Pain and Gain a narrator explains that the real life tale of three body builders turned kidnapping criminals is “unfortunately a true story.” It’s the kind of backhanded, subtle conceit that says, “Come along and enjoy three men’s catastrophic fall from grace, won’t you?” But it’s also a nod to the surreal and farcical nature of the film, which pokes more fun at itself than it does capturing the reality that was a severely amateur money-robbing plan gone fatally wrong. And that, in some essences, makes this a black comedy more than anything, though, within mid-nineties Miami in which this story takes place, the color black might be better exchanged for any shade of highlighter.
It doesn’t seem like the perfect fit then for its director Michael Bay who has never been sharp on comedy, growing his reputation towards prodding considerable polarizing fan bases. Rather die than be called a minimalist, Bay has somewhat championed the “movies as pure entertainment” argument in his Transformers series, a loud, relentless clash of CGI metal robots, noisy explosions, and exploitative auteurism. Maybe that gives him too much credit, but his style, or lack thereof, crashes and bursts its way into your presence, oftentimes providing a jumbled mess of action and unnecessary angles. But Bay only presses one explosion in his new film and while the second half of Pain and Gain runs off the track, it’s nice to see him working strictly with humans again.
He does however stick to his guns, but not the kind that store bullets. The main ones in question belong to Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a longtime manager for Sun Gym who bristles with bulging bicep and suntanned confidence and an “I’m Hot, I’m Big!” attitude. He believes in fitness and also an American Dream that has little bearing on finances and more on improving yourself by improving your body. But something is missing in his life that makes his current job and achievements, like tripling membership for his boss (Rob Corddry), feel utterly pointless. It’s his client Victor Kershaw, a self-made half-Jew half-Colombian wealthy big-shot played by Tony Shaloub that spawns this bridled escapism and desire to take his assets for his own.
In order to make the theoretical- kidnap Kershaw and transfer all of his funds out of his account-practical, Lugo enlists fellow trainer Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and ex-con Paul (Dwayne Johnson), a big muscled born-again Christian who makes Jesus his role model, to kick start their better lives. Lugo was an ex-con himself, scheming his way as a lending banker. But he’s a “Do-er,” as told to him by Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), a television motivational speaker. They dress up in Halloween masks and steal their man.
Penned by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Pain and Gain’s story comes from a Miami Sun-Times article by Pete Collins. It doesn’t shy away from details, and neither does the film, especially during Kershaw’s torture: taser jolts followed by punches in order to make him sign documents, make the right calls, and transfer his accounts. Lugo is intent on making Kershaw taste justice, and in the process reaps the rewards of his massive wealth, inheriting his mansion, boat, sports car, and fulfilling a lifelong dream of driving a lawn mower. His partners use it on other things.
Adrian impulsively buys a new house and marries his nurse (a scene-stealing hilarious Rebel Wilson) while Paul rediscovers his love for cocaine in the voids left from his devoted Christian faith. It’s quite amusing seeing Mackie and Johnson in vulnerable, dimwitted roles, and its clear Bay thinks so too. In certain aspects, Pain and Gain feels like a potential Quentin Tarantino project, but Bay, like he did in Bad Boys, roams Miami without the real bite and edge. Instead he switches from choppy personal handheld to slow motion shots of blood, lingers on a severed toe, and throws in some penile injections and grilled hands.
None of these cinematic choices really amount to much besides chaos, but the film earns its weight once Ed Harris as an undercover detective cracks open the case. It also carries the parody deeper in its somewhat dwindled critique of humanity’s incessant need for “more,” spurred on by Lugo and company’s unquenchable, expensive vices. Wahlberg, who in his most recent films has submerged into tough guy anonymity, appears to enjoy tapping his brazened, but temperamental side. At one moment he’s a poolside hotshot, in the next, he’s fleeing from police while his face melts into agony.
His amateur criminal skills are highlighted in a scene on the run, when before he marginally escapes a crime scene, he pumps some free-weights to ease his tension. Each man gets their own narration in the film, and while they’re all big muscled-small brained fitness freaks, it adds another layer of understanding to their short-lived disaster.
Pain and Gain shares both an aesthetic and stylistic palette with Harmony Korine’s recent Spring Breakers, as well as a similar discussion to be had about both film’s exploitative lenses with it’s female characters. Bar Paly plays Sorina, Lugo’s foreign girlfriend, and also consequently the standard Bay lady sex symbol, continuing the thankless legacies of Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Megan Fox. Her curvy body quickly turns into a table for Johnson to snort his white powder. The line between a story’s exploitation and authenticity is unfortunately negligible in a film like this. But then again, this is “unfortunately a true story.” At least Bay is up front with us this time.