According to Daniel Lugo, Mark Wahlberg’s beefcake ringleader in Pain & Gain, ignoring fitness and letting your body turn to mush is “unpatriotic.” Sitting on a pile of cash while twiddling your thumbs and watching hard-working people serve you is a crime against humanity. Having the will to take action, even if that action is kidnapping, torturing, mutilating, and obliterating a fellow man, is what America is all about. Being a “do-er” gives you the right to do anything.
Lugo’s delusional mantras are the adrenaline that forcefully pumps blood through the veins of Michael Bay’s latest, a vicious condemnation of the “American Dream” overflowing with dimwitted behavior and gruesome acts of violence. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely adeptly spin an all-too-true story into a Burn After Reading-esque exercise in nihilism. Nearly everyone in Pain & Gain is an aggressive personality, warped by greed and self-righteousness: Lugo becomes empowered by a plan to kidnap millionaire Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) after a motivating speech from get-rich-quick speaker Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong); his accomplice Adrian (Anthony Mackie) follows him blindly, fed up with his day job and suffering from erectile dysfunction; the third piece to the puzzle, ex-con Paul (Dwayne Johnson), starts the movie saved by religion. By the end, he’s overcome by a world of strippers, cocaine, and getting away with murder. The trio are a nightmarish Three Stooges act with a thirst for riches. As harebrained schemes always do, Lugo’s bagging of Kershaw and extortion-by-torture blows up in his face.
Bay’s style from the retina-annihilating Transformers series carries over to Pain & Gain, where it seeps into the storytelling perfectly. His usual low-angle hero shots now echo the characters’ crass egotism, while a palette of blinding colors match the plastic beauty of Miami. A smaller scale forces Bay to push himself further, which leads to exhilarating success — similar to last year’s End of Watch, the director injects kineticism through putting us in the seat of the gang’s car, on the nose of a pistol, or right up in Wahlberg’s faces as he performs sit ups in the hot sun. Seizing the rated-R opportunity, Bay also depicts the details of the real 1995 kidnapping case in all their grizzly glory. Shalhoub is tased, beaten, burned, and mashed up to a bloody pulp in Pain & Gain — and that’s just the first 40 minutes. By the time The Rock is grilling human hands and Wahlberg is returning a chainsaw to a local hardware store after cutting up bodies just an hour earlier, the movie wisely reminds us, “Still Based on a True Story.”
There are moments where Bay actively works against Markus and McFeely’s script. Like Transformers‘ most groan-worthy moments, Pain & Gain manages to squeeze a great deal of crass humor tangential to the story. Some of it is in character — Paul is a staunch homophobe while Lugo can’t help but look down at the obese. But Bay wavers in his ability to present this as an icky way of life. Sometimes, the ignorant commentary and bathroom jokes feel intentionally played for laughs.
Making up for any misgivings is a cast maneuvering at peak performance. Wahlberg strikes that unnerving balance of naivete and confidence, the type of pompous nature that would lead an average joe to commit a crime that could put him on death row. The actor is downright hyperactive, and the script gives him the chance to flex his comedic and action muscles, two sides to a Hollywood leading man persona he’s been toning up for nearly a decade. He even gets a “walk away from an explosion moment” — but here, it’s judgmental to his inability to separate fact from fiction. Johnson is out of his element as the Jesus-loving Paul; the actor goes from gentle giant to a coke fiend version of Godzilla over the course of the movie, and it’s daring work. Mackie, mostly known for his dramatic work, riffs on both of them and costar Rebel Wilson with whirlwind speed. Adrian’s explanation for why he drinks breast milk is the reason they invented the acronym “WTF.”
Keeping Pain & Gain from greatness is a bloated runtime. At over two hours, the action stumbles along, mismatched with the pace Bay sets behind the camera. Ed Harris’ detective character arrives late to the game, lighting a fire under the trio, but only after a lengthy stretch of antics that begin to grate. Melding the individual beats — however faithful the final product is — could have condensed the fever dream into a more palatable (and thrilling) story. Still, Bay gets it mostly right. Pain & Gain is a twisted byproduct of American fantasy. Bay’s previous work may be a reason he had to make this movie in the first place, but regardless, it stands as a sharp bit of satire that provokes on every level.