Nineties Florida. Mark Wahlburg, Anthony Mackie and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson star in Michael Bay’s retrotastic tale of ’roid raging South Beach bodybuilders grasping desperately to be a part of the American dream. Trouble is our pumped up pals seek the shortcut to success by concocting a ham-fisted scheme to kidnap and extort gold-garlanded gym client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub).
The dim-witted trio, led by ringleader Daniel Lugo, (Wahlburg) a personal trainer at Miami’s muscle-mecca Sun Gym, soon find that a life of crime ain’t no easy road to riches, as their comic caper hijinx quickly careen out of control into an ugly downward spiral of violence and murder.
Based on a true story, where the actual protagonists are still languishing on death row, Pain and Gain tries very hard to grasp the magic of Elmore Leonard’s Miami beach era. We have the same low budget scuzzyness, a serious attempt by Michael Bay to emulate Leonard’s unique balance of comedy/tragedy/snappy dialogue—we even have Dwayne Johnson who has made a career out of playing the kind of dumb but lovable character (Elliot Wilhelm) he portrayed in the 2005 adaptation of Leonard’s Be Cool.
Unfortunately for Bay, this tale of bodybuilding buddies rapidly comes unstuck and like the plans of our hapless heroes descend into a netherworld of mindless stupidity and violence. Bay tries vainly to make the best of things, by injecting a sense of levity into the darker moments—such as one memorable scene where our heroes return a chainsaw to Home Depot after it has been clogged with hair and human gore—unfortunately the horror of the crime causes the comedic punch line to leave nothing more than a nasty taste.
It is this sense of misplaced fun and the rather ham-fisted attempt at social satire that makes this film hard to like. There is an almost total lack of redemption here; the few female characters we see are clownishly whorish and almost everyone else is greedy and moronic. This heady mix of stupidity is heavily larded with violence, creating the very real the danger is that this film will be seen by many as a “how to”—rather than a cautionary tale striving to critique an unsustainable lifestyle.
Unlike that other Miami based tale of criminal aspiration Scarface, Pain and Gain does not have a classic narrative feel and the unremitting tragedy that runs so close to the surface prevents this movie from becoming a classic crime caper.
In mitigation, Wahlburg is marvelous as the bug-eyed Lugo and Johnson delivers as twelve-step Christian Paul Doyle. The ’roid addled Doorbal (Mackie) draws the short straw on characterization and is the brunt of endless knob gags throughout.
There is also a very able cast of cameo characters, including Ken Jeong, who makes an all too brief appearance as a Tony Robbins style motivational speaker who spurs Lugo to become a “doer” rather than a “don’ter”. We also get Comedienne Rebel Wilson in an agreeable, if somewhat forced cameo as Mackie’s wife, but by the time she arrives on the [crime] scene, this slice of shlocky celluloid is stinking up a storm. And not even the marvelous Ed Harris, as superannuated cop Ed Dubois can save the day. So if you want to sip cocktails this labor day weekend and enjoy a bubble headed cinematic train-wreck, catch Pain & Gain on pay per view cable, or “own it” on fabulous blu-ray, the choice is yours Crimeziners.