Dir. by Michael Bay - 2 hrs. 9 min.
Official Red Band Trailer
by Clayton Hollifield
First off, I'm not hating on this film because Michael Bay made it. In fact, if you were going to make a movie about an overly testosterone-laden trio of bodybuilders who try to pull off a criminal plan that they are convinced is foolproof and genius, and it's set in 90's Miami, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with someone more appropriate for the job. "Pain & Gain" is a big, flashy, dumb, aggressive, and pretty funny movie. It feels like one of those movies where everyone involved just shows up, does exactly what they're good at, and that's it.
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is an aspirational personal trainer: he wants the American Dream. He manages to triple his gym's membership in three months, so he's not completely clueless, but this success just serves to open his eyes to the kind of success he's not having. Daniel hatches a kidnapping plot at the expense of one of his clients, and ropes fellow trainers Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne Johnson) into the scheme. Of course, it doesn't go as smoothly as they'd hoped, but it is ultimately successful. This gives all three men access to the high life, which they handle with varying aplomb, which means that they reluctantly plan another kidnapping.
As I mentioned earlier, Michael Bay is exactly the right guy to handle this kind of material. The very idea of fitness as a means of overall self-improvement is central to the film (as is the single-minded focus required to achieve it), and a filmmaker who wasn't sympathetic to that idea would likely make a completely insufferable film based on this material. There is no such thing as an ironic push-up, and all of the characters involved have the mind-set that you get things done by putting your head down and pushing through the pain. It should also be mentioned that this film is based on a true story (how closely, who knows?), so the setting and the characters involved aren't really interchangeable with other kinds of stock characters. Frankly, most of the appeal of "Pain & Gain" lies in seeing three meat-heads trying to pull off a kidnapping, and how badly they're going to botch the job.
And the storytelling is pretty decent, too. Each of the three meat-heads has a distinct character and motivation, which is something that could have been glossed over. They may not all be smart, or good people, but they are people. That makes the story a lot more complicated, and a lot more interesting. Daniel is a natural-born leader, but without substance, so he's prone to running afoul of the law. Paul is desperately clinging onto his sobriety, which is a difficult task when no one will give an ex-con a break, and even the people who are supposed to help him try to take advantage of him. And Adrian is sort of the runt of the gym, who can't possibly live up to the standards that everyone around him are setting. He's desperate for approval in that situation, and Daniel takes advantage of that neediness. So you don't have three mute big dudes trying to pull something off, you've got three people with different weaknesses and personalities, barely functioning as a team. This is more thought and characterization than was necessary for this movie, and it goes a long way.
As far as the acting goes, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has the most ground to tread. He plays his character both clinging to sobriety and barely functional due to drug use over the course of the film, and there's a definite transformation. Yeah, he's still huge and muscly all the way through, but there's also some honest-to-goodness acting going on here. Wahlberg is good, but it's not anything you haven't seen from him before. Anthony Mackie has the most embarrassing material to work with, but he manages to make himself sympathetic through it. And Tony Shaloub (he plays the first kidnapping victim) is great as the victim that nobody can sympathize with because he treats everyone so shabbily.
But we're still dealing with a Michael Bay film here. Yes, there is a shot of three men walking towards the camera in slow-motion while something blows up behind them (which is hilarious, considering Wahlberg already made fun of that exact shot with Will Ferrell in "The Other Guys"). Yes, nearly all the women are strippers (or work in the sex industry one way or another). Yes, it's in Miami. This all to say that while this is a fun film (in a sick way), and everyone shows up with their working boots on, no one does anything at all that would stretch your perception of their abilities. That is not a prerequisite for my enjoying a film, I can enjoy the application of hard-earned mastery of one's craft. I can enjoy big, dumb movies. And I enjoyed this one all the way through (although I did get a little hungry by the end of it). But this is not the best film any of these men have made. "Pain & Gain" falls into the category of a movie where you'll enjoy it if you're into the idea or the actors, and it's probably not going to convert anyone if you're not already inclined to a generous opinion of the idea or the cast. Unless, of course, you like the idea of seeing Mark Wahlberg with a dress shirt tucked into jean shorts, or of seeing men wearing fanny packs non-ironically, which is pretty awesome.
2.5 / 5 - Theatre