The name Michael Bay is pretty much synonymous with big budgets, even bigger explosions, and adrenaline-fueled action sequences. Whether moviegoers love him or hate him, there is no denying that Bay has carved a certain niche for himself in Hollywood. Movies such as “Armageddon” (1998) and “Transformers” (2007) are always sure to give audiences something flashy to watch during the hot summer months.
Bay’s 2013 offering, “Pain & Gain,” deviates from his formula in some ways. It is darker, grittier, and more blood-splashed than most of his films. Some of its darkness arises from the fact that “Pain & Gain” draws heavy inspiration from a sordid and unsettling true story. In fact, the victims of the actual events have openly criticized the movie’s glib treatment of the terrible ordeal. “Pain & Gain” also features a lower budget than many of the films that Bay is so famous for directing. But despite all this, the crime comedy is immediately recognizable as a Bay blockbuster.
The film stars Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo, a man whose heart is already in the wrong place when the film opens. After serving time for fraud, he capitalizes on his muscular build to get a job at a gym. The gym’s owner (Rob Corddry) hopes that Lugo will inspire clients and boost the clientele, and it turns out that Lugo is more than successful at this task. Still, Lugo is restless. He feels entitled to a life of wealth and luxury that fate has not seen fit to give him. There is one thing that Lugo has that other people lack, though, and that’s muscle. Lots and lots of muscle.
Lugo starts to focus on gym-goer Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a wealthy man who seems to lead the very life Lugo covets. The unhappy gym trainer recruits the help of two fellow meatheads. Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) is another trainer at the gym, hooked on steroids. Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) is a born-again type who only joins the scheme reluctantly. Lugo’s scheme is to kidnap Kershaw and earn big bucks through the time-honored technique of extortion. Unfortunately for Lugo, Doorbal, and Doyle, not to mention their victim, they are extremely incompetent. Their attempts to kidnap Kershaw result in one mishap after another, and the consequences are even more complex and fraught with problems.
Bay was apparently going in a new direction with this film, focusing less on the “gain” part of “Pain & Gain.” He apparently set out to let his characters guide the story, not big-budget special effects or enormous robots. The result is a hybrid that is not certain to satisfy either Bay fans or the critics.
While the subject matter is fascinatingly grim, the comedic treatment of violence in “Pain & Gain” can feel much too glib. Finding humor in extreme violence is nothing new in Hollywood. However, the fact that real people suffered makes the humor feel a little too callous and exploitative at times. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the people involved with Lugo’s brutal scheme have spoken out against the film. Turning morbid reality into art takes a delicate and skillful touch. Judging by this movie, Bay might still be too immersed in a world of slick special effects and high-paced action to truly respect the nuance of the situation.
For its flaws, however, “Pain & Gain” is an irreverent and interesting film. It tackles the tough subjects of American machismo, corruption, and violence. While the humor tends to be intensely crude and politically incorrect, it can at least be seen as a criticism of these societal attitudes. After all, Lugo and his cohort are hardly admirable characters. Not just cruel, they are also buffoonish. Still, anyone who tends to be offended by lowbrow humor is probably happier selecting a different movie.
Rebel Wilson is a refreshing presence in a minor role, as she often is in films. Despite Bay’s best intentions, Wahlberg, Johnson, and Mackie are not so much complex characters as mean bundles of muscle. At times, they feel like cartoon bullies with an R rating attached. It is important to remember, though, that the film is supposed to be a character study. Perhaps this is about as good as any character study of incompetent, unscrupulous death row prisoners is going to get.
“American Psycho” (2000) originally received a storm of controversy for its violence, misogyny, and callous celebration of materialism. Years later, many critics and fans view those very same qualities as satirical. By now, “American Psycho” is more of a cult classic, recognized for its dark humor. Perhaps Bay’s “Pain & Gain” will experience a similar fate. For those who view the movie with the right mindset, though, its satirical attitude already makes it a worthwhile dark comedy.