Review: Pain & Gain

There are two fundamental problems with the action “comedy” Pain and Gain: First, Michael Bay is the wrong director for this sort of material, and second, whoever cast the likable Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson in the film made a terrible mistake. I like Wahlberg and Johnson, and that’s the problem: In the film the criminal masterminds they portray are such losers that it’s just wrong to have these two popular actors in these roles.

Pain and Gain is based on real life events: Sun Gym was a cut-rate bodybuilder’s gym just north of Miami, marketed and mostly run by a self-aggrandizing personal trainer with a shady past. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) trains all the rich and beautiful Miami denizens and has a buddy Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) who shares Lugo’s dissatisfaction with the crummy deal they’ve got. “You ain’t gunna be rich being a personal trainer” they repeat like a mantra.

Enter rich Jewish entrepreneur Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) who taunts Lugo about his wealth, his cars, his houses and his women. Being poor is a state of mind, Kershaw keeps telling Lugo. When Lugo goes to a motivational seminar run by Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong) and affirms in front of a crowd that he’s a DOER not a DON’T’ER, he hatches a scheme to kidnap Kershaw and force him to sign over money and property.

Add fresh-out-of-prison Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) as the new muscle-bound trainer at the gym and we have our three stooges. When Doyle, Lugo and Doorbal kidnap Kershaw, they figure it’ll be a breeze, maybe a day or two tops before Kershaw buckles and gives them everything they want. Except he doesn’t and the kidnapping drags out for weeks. There’s more to their criminal hijinks, and after Kershaw gets free and tells all to the cops, just to find they don’t believe him, the forces of justice end up personified as semi-retired private investigator Ed DuBois (Ed Harris).

The first 45min or so of the movie were entertaining, focused primarily on Lugo and his schemes to get rich and better himself. As the film tag line says, “My American dream is bigger than yours.” Even the first botched attempt at kidnapping Kershaw is amusing, with ninja costumes and Keystone Cops mayhem.

When Lugo decides to torture Kershaw to force him to sign the papers, the film stops being a humorous satire about crime and dumb criminals and takes on a darker, far more serious tone, a tone that is something outside of Michael Bay’s experience. Bay’s oevre centers on explosions and bikinis in films like Transformers, The Island, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, The Rock and Bad Boys. When Kershaw starts being tortured I started to imagine how a director like Quentin Tarantino would have handled the story, a director far more experienced with dark, violent films.

Lugo is a sadistic sociopath and not a very bright one at that. He’s not a funny character by the time the film’s halfway through and by the end he’s a pathetic, violent man who has killed and encouraged the cold blooded murder of other people without blinking an eye. Which makes it all the more odd that Mark Wahlberg was cast for this role. Wahlberg should have known better: this will do nothing for his career.

Lugo (Wahlberg) interrogates Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) while Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) looks on.

What goes for Wahlberg being miscast reflects 10x for Dwayne Johnson, who has spent much of his career picking safe, likable lunkhead roles in films like Get Smart, The Scorpion King and G.I.Joe: Retaliation. I like Johnson and look forward to his movies — as I do with Wahlberg — but the character he plays in Pain and Gain was a cinematic cliché, the tough guy who found Jesus in prison and comes out a peaceful man wanting to build a better life. As he participates in torture and murder, he’s wearing “I’m on Team Jesus” t-shirts and earnestly quoting the Bible. It comes across as so one dimensional, so predictable that, again, I’m surprised Johnson accepted the role.

A director like Tarantino could have made Pain and Gain as a gritty indie-style film with unknown actors who brought a sense of menace to the screen, characters who we don’t like — because, really, what’s to like about muscle-bound thugs who torture and kill people? — but instead find unsettling in a film that has us rooting for the victims, not trying to figure out who the “good guys” are. Think De Niro in Cape Fear. That’s the kind of scary the film needed.

Half-way through the film, I was still enjoying Pain and Gain. There’s a light tone to it that’s very reminiscent of Bad Boys, another tough guys film, but where the heroes are cops, not thugs. As the film turned darker and Lugo, Doyle and Doorbal reveal themselves as sadists on what turns out to be a killing spree, the film just became depressing. There’s no redemption at the end, no heroes journey (heck, there are no heroes), and when the film ends with photos of the real Lugo, Doorbal and Doyle from mug shots and police photos, it’s an appropriately depressing conclusion to a confused unfunny mess of a film.

Pain and Gain isn’t a comedy, and it’s not much of a police action film. It’s hard to say what genre Pain and Gain fits into, but my suggestion to you is: skip it. And most assuredly, it’s not appropriate for teens.

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