The combination of the words “Michael Bay” and “steroids” should be enough to give any moviegoer pause before seeing Bay’s new movie, Pain & Gain, which is based on the real-life story from the 1990s of a group of Florida gym rats in South Beach who became violent criminals.
Bay, the director of Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and the Transformer movies, is, Hollywood’s most extreme big-screen stylist, whose disorienting images of mass destruction have become synonymous with blockbuster overkill. Nominally, this is Bay’s version of an indie film, a subculture study along the lines of Goodfellas or Boogie Nights, made at the relatively modest budget of $25-million (U.S.). Running at a long 129 minutes, this black comedy about balloon-armed dolts and infantile women with porn-star bodies plays like Goodfellas as performed by the Three Stooges. As a genre-mashing exercise it’s almost interesting but, really, why bother?
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the Chronicles of Narnia movies, Captain America), the script focuses on Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg, swollen to new muscular dimensions), a petty ex-con working for rich clients at Miami’s Sun Gym, while hooked on the self-help infomercials of a ridiculous Tony Robbins-style motivational speaker (The Hangover’s Ken Jeong) who preaches that it’s better to be a “doer” than a “don’ter.”
Lugo is a naive dolt (not far from Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler character in Boogie Nights) who has become convinced that it’s “un-American” not to be successful – and that it’s almost a patriotic act to kidnap and extort money from a sleazy gym customer, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Lugo enlists fellow trainer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), whose main characteristic is that he’s impotent from abusing steroids, as well as simple-minded, born-again Christian Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson).
After a series of inept kidnapping attempts, they finally take Kershaw to a dry-cleaning warehouse, where, for weeks, they subject him to various forms of clumsy torture in an effort to get him to sign over his wealth. Kershaw proves indefatigably obnoxious and resistant, even as his kidnappers repeatedly fail to kill him.
If that doesn’t pulverize your funny bone, we later see Lugo move into Kershaw’s McMansion, heading up a Neighbourhood Watch meeting and coaching suburban adolescent boys on how to get laid. The script alters his character almost scene-by-scene: One moment he’s unbelievably naive, the next a smooth-talking con man and, after that, a socially inappropriate lout.
Perhaps the only people more incompetent than the kidnappers are the local Dade County police. The force leaves the business of doling out justice to a laid-back ex-cop and private detective, Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris, in a gratefully received low-key performance), to take on the job of bringing the pumped-up dolts to justice. Du Bois correctly surmises that the gang will strike again once they’ve used up Kershaw’s money. Their target is another sleazy character, phone-sex king Frank Grin (Michael Rispoli), but this time Lugo’s hot temper lands the bodybuilders in deeper trouble.
A good half-hour is spent in the desperate and supposedly hilarious clean-up of a crime scene, but the endless dumbness, cruelty and frantic reaction from Wahlberg, Mackie and Johnson begins to feel like purgatorial grind.
While Bay’s whooshing cameras, fevered montages and hot Miami colours provide plenty of visual texture, Pain & Gain, in bodybuilding terms, has a lot of reps, but little weight. The script’s occasional gestures toward making this an allegory of the failed American dream are extremely unconvincing in the context of a movie that revels in the excesses of macho culture while laughing at the hapless and stupid who can’t get it right.