Pain and Gain Review


It seems like it’d be hard for anyone to hate Pain and Gain if it didn’t seemingly trivialize a pair of brutal murders. It’s more energetic than any film this year. The trio of Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie is exceptional (and exceptionally casted). And director Michael Bay‘s insistence on keeping the pyrotechnics and manic cuts to a minimum allows the film’s natural comedy to shine. And while not being able to stomach this film to a certain degree seems perfectly valid, it’s mostly a fun ride to take. Just check your morals and good taste at the door.

Wahlberg is the leader of the trio of bodybuilders at the center of a series of heinous crimes committed in Miami, Florida in the mid-1990s. His Daniel Lugo is a personal trainer with big dreams and no foreseeable way to turn them into a reality. He takes a self-help class with guru Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), who implores Daniel to be a “do-er,” not a “don’t-er.”

Daniel recruits Adrian (Mackie), a fellow bodybuilder with a steroid-induced ED problem, and Paul (Johnson), a just-released convict and former addict who’s turned to Christ, to help him achieve his dreams. His plan: kidnap Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a millionaire who’s both one of Daniel’s clients and a grade-A asshole.

They do the deed, and while it doesn’t exactly go smoothly, they’re soon living the American dream—money, women, houses, boats, fast cars. Victor carries a mighty big grudge, however, and while the police won’t believe him, his story piques the interest of a PI, Ed DuBois (Ed Harris). He begins to investigate just as Daniel, Paul, and Adrian, out of money, decide to attempt the risky scheme once more.

The story is definitely larger than life, and Bay elects to go the route of a film like Raising Arizona. Everything in the film—from Lugo and his cohorts to the scenery and the story itself—is high-energy. In fact, the characters’ energy often drives the narrative forward. Lugo can’t help himself. He’s so eager to become a hot shot that he doesn’t think his decisions through.

It’s clear in almost every frame (and particularly through the surprisingly insightful voiceovers) that Bay and company feel real contempt for Lugo, his actions, and his way of thinking. He’s inexplicably entitled. And what Bay accomplishes on this front is impressive. There are times when he seems on the precipice of wanting to tell us that Lugo, deep down, isn’t a bad guy. But that would be mistaking his relatively even-handed ability to share causation with us for something ickier—giving excuses for Lugo. That’s not Bay’s M.O., and that’s ultimately what makes Pain and Gain mostly palatable on the moral plain.

Wahlberg’s performance, in addition to reinforcing Bay’s assertion that Lugo is a real psychopath, is the source of the film’s best and most manic humor. When put in the right role, the guy can give a truly special performance, and this is actually one of his very best since his Oscar-nominated work in The Departed. (It looks especially good when compared to whatever the sleepy guy in Broken City was doing.)

Dwayne Johnson is also quite interesting insofar as he’s giving a performance we’ve never really seen from him before. The character of Paul is actually an amalgam of sorts, blending qualities and characteristics of a few different men involved in the real-life crimes. He’s devoutly religious and a recovering addict with a penchant for falling off the wagon. He has a heart and strikes up a friendship with Victor (whom he calls “Pepe”) while torturing him and keeping him hostage. His conflicting personality traits, and Johnson’s stone-cold-serious demeanor while conveying them, make Paul one of the more memorable movie characters this year.

The rest of the supporting cast is filled out nicely, though no one else stands out as exceptional. It’s Bay, then, that steals many scenes with a sense of small-scale action and excitement that’s both refreshing and surprising. If it took three Transformers movies to get one Pain and Gain, I’d sit through three more for something else like this film. It’s pure, unadulterated fun, and while there’s no escaping the knowledge that real people died and real families suffered, everyone involved here has admirable enough intentions that you ought to be able to sit back and enjoy the show.

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