If Pain & Gain were a late-night infomercial, it would scream GREAT RESULTS, OR YOUR MONEY BACK!
Unfortunately, director Michael Bay makes no such offers. But in a flawed film, he does offer one great deal: Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson as raging bulls hoping to become junior Tony Montanas.
Wahlberg and Johnson are the saving graces of an in-your-face movie about weightlifters who kidnap, extort and dismember their victims. Sometimes the steroided-up style lands like a dumbbell on your head, though it’s nowhere near as bombastic as Bay’s Transformers films.
Based, as on-screen titles keep reminding us, on an outlandish true story, Pain & Gain is told via a near-constant voice-over. In 1994, Danny Lugo (Wahlberg) is a Miami personal trainer whose hard work and striving for physical perfection is not reflected in his bank account.
Danny goes to self-improvement seminars, yet can’t bulk up his future. Then the gym gets a new client, wealthy restaurateur Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Danny gets a clue: He’ll abduct Kershaw and force him to sign away his wealth.
Adrian (Anthony Mackie), Danny’s fellow trainer, agrees to help, but they need one more person. Enter Paul Doyle (Johnson), a born-again ex-con whose “Team Jesus” T-shirts and sweet nature are for real. As the plan keeps changing, and Kershaw refuses to cooperate by either signing or dying, Doyle gets second thoughts. Add to this that these guys keep the opposite of a “low profile”, and things keep going wrong – just as a P.I. (Ed Harris) starts to sniff around.
Based on a magazine article, Pain & Gain has a surprisingly empathetic approach to the disenfranchisement guys like Danny feel. In his protein-boosted reality, he deserves more because he wants more. Bay may not linger on that, but the savvy Wahlberg gets it. There’s a “why not me?” tinge to Danny that makes him endearing, even as his amorality is busy bench-pressing his stupidity.
But Bay fills so much of the movie with caricatures and craziness; the story would have sufficed. Shalhoub delivers what’s needed, but gets cartoonish. Rebel Wilson pops up to apparently improvise some bawdy talk, and Rob Corddry, as the gym’s weaselly manager, sneers with aplomb.
At least Wahlberg is matched by guys who can punch his weight. Mackie gets to jack up the nutsiness and still make Adrian the voice of reason. And Johnson perfectly blends the two sides of his screen persona. Always one-part supersized tough guy and two parts endearing family star, Johnson finds the humour in a man roasting severed hands on a grill as much as he does the soul of a guy gripping tight to redemption in the midst of rage.
Pain & Gain is arguably too much of everything – everyone jabbers on incessantly, and the movie is in love with its own outrageousness – but its biggest lift comes from the pumped-up Wahlberg and Johnson. They manage to find the humanity in all the “adrenalised” muscle.
– New York Daily News