Unofficial spokesdirector for populist filmmaking Michael Bay proves that his brazenly uncomplicated approach might just work better when paired with more hardcore, violent subject matter in his bonkers crime comedy Pain & Gain. The outlandish story of three ’roid-raged Miami bodybuilders who hatch a bizarre plan to kidnap and threaten a local business mogul until he agrees to sign over all of his assets to them -- only for their insane scheme to eventually result in torture, murder, and dismemberment -- would be far too ridiculous to believe if it weren’t for the fact that, right down to the weirdest detail, it’s all true.
The ringleader of the muscular crew is a supermotivated personal trainer named Daniel Lugo, played by Mark Wahlberg with his classic blend of explosive hypermasculinity and odd, clueless vulnerability; picture him benching 400 pounds and playing with automatic weapons, only to respond to a verbal jab by bellowing “WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT?!? THAT HURT MY FEELINGS!” Lugo is a fascinatingly dumb person. On the one hand, he’s clever and determined enough to have attempted Medicare-fraud schemes and insured-loan scams in the past. On the other, he’s stupid and deluded enough to have thought he could get away with it -- and he still believes that these kinds of crimes are his path to the American dream he wants, nay, deserves.
So despite having done a year or two in prison already, when Lugo’s latest client at the gym turns out to be a millionaire named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), he gives it another try. He recruits two of his bench-pressing co-workers to help him: Adrian Doorbal, played by Anthony Mackie, and born-again Christian Paul Doyle, played by Dwayne Johnson, whose own brand of strangely innocent, don’t-know-my-own-strength brute might just blow Wahlberg’s already established MO out of the water. The three are so bumbling and naïve that they attempt to abduct Kershaw several times, only to continually abort the mission due to a shocking lack of planning and intelligence. Like when they try to corner him in a parking lot, only to mix up his car with someone else’s. Or when they prepare to burst through his back door, only to discover Kershaw is hosting Shabbat dinner for about 15 people.
So it’s even more unbelievable when the three finally succeed in kidnapping their mark, which they manage to accomplish with the merciless use of a Taser. The gang chain Kershaw up in an abandoned dry cleaners and try to force him to sign over his money, property, and businesses. But what the guys don’t count on is that Kershaw is only rich because he himself is a tough, ruthless mofo, who endures more than three weeks of brutality, starvation, and torture before he breaks. This requires Lugo and his cohorts to watch over him in shifts while they spend the rest of their time scamming Kershaw’s banks and accountants, convincing strippers they are CIA agents, and, in the case of Doyle, trying to get the hostage to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior.
Between Kershaw being kind of a jerk and the lead characters being sociopathic tools, this movie is already a departure for Bay, because the ensemble doesn’t include a single pure-of-heart hero (unless you count Ed Harris, who shows up halfway through as a private eye). However, the director still employs his trademark music-video flashiness and broad, beer-commercial humor, attributes that can feel cheesy and saccharine in kid-friendly fare like Armageddon or Transformers, but work a lot better in something this dark and disturbing. Here, Bay’s exuberance creates balance, a possibly unintentional but nonetheless brilliant counterpoint to the monstrosities being committed onscreen.
What’s really amazing, if you think about it, is that the reason this movie is so unrelentingly entertaining from beginning to end (which it is, by the way), is because everything you see, no matter how gritty or horrible or played for obvious or broad effect, is undeniably interesting. Could this really be said of any of Bay’s other films? The dichotomy of Lugo’s character alone is so strange that you can’t look away. He has to be so smart to implement a plan with this many moving parts, and yet so dumb to try it at all; he has to be so motivated to do something this difficult and dangerous in the pursuit of wealth, and yet so lazy and entitled to steal that wealth rather than earn it.
And through all these events (which only get more amazingly ludicrous -- the synopsis above describes just the first 30 minutes), Lugo is babbling like a cokehead about strength and integrity and the American dream. Considering that Bay’s other movies have all served a humorless undercurrent of earnest patriotism, it’s, again, really interesting to see him lampoon that very perspective. Not to mention that on a cultural and aesthetic level, Bay is satirizing douchiness here -- a style and attitude that has heretofore been what you might call his bread and butter.
Pain & Gain is far from art-house material, but if you go into a Michael Bay flick seriously expecting a Coen brothers film, you need to get yourself a CAT scan. It’s wild and engrossing and, it bears repeating, completely true. You can look up the entire, stranger-than-fiction news story that it’s so painstakingly based on in the Miami New Times -- but do yourself a favor and see the movie first.
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