Daniel Lugo (Mark Walhberg) is a personal trainer, and he believes in fitness. He’s a “dor-er” not a “don’t-er.” He’s also a complete idiot. And a sociopath, who believes he deserves an extra large protein shake-size portion of the American Dream. So why not just take it from others? He recruits his gym buddy Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and a hulking ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), and the three lunk-headed bodybuilders set out on an absurd kidnapping and extortion scheme of one of Daniel’s clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), a wealthy businessman — and a major prick. Their plan? Hold him hostage and torture him until he signs over everything he’s got. Brilliant.
Brilliant maybe. But not smart. These three morons are by no means criminal masterminds. In fact, they’re scheme rarely works out according to plan, and when they wing in, things go perfectly worse. The only reason they’re able to succeed for as long as they did was sheer dumb luck. Anyway, Kershaw escapes – though exactly how, I won’t say – and ends up contacting an ex-cop private investigator Ed DuBois (Ed Harris). And just like the actual police, DuBois is extreme skeptical of Kershaw’s account of what happened. After you see what the guy endures, you wouldn’t believe him either. Things are fine, and the boys are “blending in” as well as they can. Until DuBois starts sniffing around.
One of the reasons Pain & Gain works so well is it’s performances. They’re spot on. Mark Walhberg is so hilariously over-the-effing-top you can’t help but laugh. Walhberg’s Lugo is the manipulator of all manipulators. He idolizes Rocky, Tony Montana, and Michael Coreleone, but for all the wrong reasons. He believes people like Victor Kershaw stole from him, and he’s gonna steal it right back. Ed Harris is solid, as usual. One thing director Michael Bay and I have in common, is our love for Ed “the head” Harris. One my favorite actors and a Michael Bay regular. He doesn’t do a lot with the role, but he doesn’t need to. He stays within the confines of what he’s given and he’s terrific. Anthony Mackie is Louise to Walhberg’s Thelma. The dim-witted sidekick needs the money from this crime so he can fix his steroid-induced impotence. The two play off each other perfectly.
The real standout, though, is Dwayne Johnson. When Paul Doyle got out of jail, he traded in booze and cocaine for the Good Lord, the Bible, and “Team Jesus” t-shirts. And Johnson plays him perfectly. Walking the line between his character in Fast & Furious and the huge black dude from The Longest Yard remake. “You brokeded my nose!” I’ve always been a Dwayne Johnson fan, but I have to admit, even I was impressed. He’s a conflicted fool out for redemption, but succumbs to temptation. He’s a riot. A great performance, and unlike anything we’ve seen from the pro-wrestler turned actor.
The other reason Pain & Gain works so well is, believe it or not, Michael Bay. The movie is filled with Michael Bay doing Michael Bay things. He utilizes all the staples we’re used to seeing. But it’s still a solid movie. A shot of a plane flying over building or billboard? Check. Sweeping slow-motion shots of his actors standing up? Check. Tits and ass? Check. Obligatory shot of lead characters walking away from an explosion-induced fireball? (Appropriately pictured above) Check. Slap-stick humor with broad appeal? Check. It’s complete and utter Bayhem (Michael Bay + Mayhem = Bayhem, see what I did there?). Michael Bay is able to capture the black-comedy vibe of the Coen brothers, and the awesome volitile-style of Tarantino. I can’t explain it. It just works.
Pain & Gain is partially a satire of the American Dream and partially Michael Bay’s version of just how absurd this true story really is. Things get so outrageously wild, we’re reminded late in the movie with a title card which reads: “This is still a true story.” It’s the The Three Stooges on steroids. If you can imagine the cast of Goodfellas – Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci – all roided-out, dead-set on grabbing their slice of American Dream, you’re half way there. Almost. This is by no means a cinematic achievement, but it’s entertaining as all hell. It’s raunchy. It’s twisted. It’s Michael Bay.