Michael Bay is not known for doing small-budgeted, character driven films. Quite the opposite, actually. Bad Boys I & II, The Rock, Armageddon, The Island and the Transformers trilogy are some of the most famous/successful action blockbusters ever made. They are often criticized for their priority of style over substance but how much substance can one get from giant talking robots that can morph into almost anything? Here Bay steps away from his mega-budgeted blockbusters to direct a true crime tale that is almost too insane and ridiculous to be true. But it is. It’s called Pain & Gain.
Adapted from the Miami New Times articles by Pete Collins, the film stars Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo, an ex-con/ body builder that worked at the sun gym in Miami in the early 90’s. Lugo is frustrated with his life. He’s got the perfect body that any man would kill for but not the funds to make his life worth living, at least not to his standards. One day while going to work he begins training with a new client, Victor Kershaw (Played by Tony Shalhoub). Kershaw is your typical arrogant millionaire that talks down to anybody around him because he is “self-made”, that includes employees at his deli and the other people that have to deal with him on a daily basis. Lugo knows this man is worth millions and, in his eyes, he deserves bad things to happen to him. He enlists the help of a fellow gym employee Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and ex-con/born again Christian Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to kidnap Kershaw and torture him until he signs over his millions to them as well as his mansion, deli, speedboat etc. Lugo says the job can be done without anybody being killed but, of course, things go terribly wrong.
To continue along with the plot would be to give away many of the shocking and brutal twists and turns the film takes so I’ll digress as one simply has to see the movie for themselves to see just how dumb stupid people can be and to see a prime example of truth is waaaay stranger than fiction. Throughout all the chaos, insanity and brutal violence, some how, the actors, director and screenwriters get us to laugh and laugh and laugh. The dialogue and voice overs from the various characters are downright hilarious in their deliveries. This is actually a remarkable feat considering the events that unfold are anything but hilarious. If anything the events are deeply unsettling and disturbing. The violence comes unexpectedly, and is quite vicioous, yet even then we’re laughing at the absurdity of it all. This film truly is as if Michael Bay decided to write a love letter to the Coen Brothers as this material is right up their alley.
To say that the cast has great chemistry together would be an understatement. Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackie make the funniest group of idiots since…well…the three stooges. Their personalities are radically different from one another’s but they miraculously gel together and create comedy gold. Another credit to Bay and his screenwriters is that they never glorify their protagonists or what they do to people to get what they want. The film makes sure you’re laughing at them and the trouble they get themselves into rather than laughing with them when they succeed. Johnson has always been charismatic in his movies but his performance here is on a whole other level. Never have we seen him have this much fun while simultaneously making sure we have even more fun watching him. His transformation from born-again Christian to coked out mad man is both funny and scary and he never takes the part too seriously and the movie is all the better for it. Everyone in this film plays their parts to perfection. Wahlberg has never been funnier, Mackie has never been more likeable and Ed Harris, who plays a detective onto our stooges, plays things cool and calculated and, in some cases, steals the movie from his co-stars with his authoritative and menacing presence.
Final word: Pain & Gain is a hilarious, brutal, vulgar and shockingly tragic true-story that will make you cringe and giggle at the same time. It might be too early to say this, but this very well could be the best movie Michael Bay will ever make.