Some true crime stories are so astounding, they defy conventional reason and logic.
Pain & Gain is no exception.
Based on a series of magazine articles by Pete Collins, this twisted tale of a trio of Miami bodybuilders who kidnapped, tortured, and murdered for money is an upended version of the American success story. And in this dark comedy-crime thriller by action-film director Michael Bay, the killers are the protagonists.
The trio are led by a highly motivated fitness freak named Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) who concludes that hard work will never properly reward him the wealth he covets, so he conspires to take it.
Think of Daniel as a slightly smarter and more motivated, yet comically inept, Dirk Diggler, Wahlberg’s well-endowed porn star character from Boogie Nights. Like Dirk, Daniel has only his physical gifts and a limited intellect as his tools. He’s also full of grand ideas for improving his station in life, though they’re empty-headed and self-serving. He tells us in voice-over narration that his prosperity from the theft of the undeserving rich is making the country a better place, which makes him a patriot.
Buying into his get-rich schemes and questionable logic are Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie).
Paul is a meathead, a mountain of muscles with a knockout punch that’s kept in check by a conscience. After serving prison time, the former cocaine addict found Jesus and sobriety. Adrian is an aspiring body builder, whose use of steroids has rendered him impotent. He’s clever enough to see through Daniel’s not-so-clever schemes, but so desperate for money to fund his dependency on steroids and offset the side effects that he doesn’t care.
Funny, misguided, clumsy, and not wholly bad, these criminals are the most-likable characters in Pain & Gain. Their first victim is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, playing a terrific jerk), a mouthy Floridian who fosters nothing but contempt from everyone he meets.
Victor is Daniel's rich fitness client and is kidnapped by the trio who torture him into signing over his wealth and belongings. But the kidnapping turns deadly when a blindfolded Victor reveals he knows Daniel is one the kidnappers by recognizing the trainer’s cologne.
The freewheeling screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely has macabre fun with Victor’s botched murder — first in a staged drunken car crash, then a follow-up attempt at burning him in the vehicle, and finally being run over by a van as he flees. Victor miraculously survives, and while recovering in the hospital shares his horrific ordeal with Miami police detectives who dismiss his story as too unbelievable to be true. Near-penniless, Victor holes up in a sleazy motel room, where the bloodied and bandaged victim hides from his would-be killers. In desperation he hires a private detective and former cop named Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) to prove his story to the police.
And that’s when this true-to-life and head-shaking plot really gets strange as Daniel, Paul, and Adrian settle into their new lives of wealth, and engage in a business con gone wrong that involves the murder of a wealthy Miami porn king and his wife.
This multi-hyphenated film (action-comedy-crime) shouldn’t work with Bay directing. The Transformer trilogy director is hardly known for restraint and he doesn’t show much here, in a film that ordinarily calls for a lighter touch. But his heavy-handed approach — the zippy camera shots, the close-ups, the loud and bloody mayhem — keep a rhythm and feel to the film. Bay’s presence is as palpable as any of the actors onscreen.
There’s undeniable humor in this comedy of errors of three bumbling criminals, and Wahlberg, Johnson, and Mackie strike the right tone in their performances. We laugh at them — never with them — even as we wince in their failed attempts to chop up the bodies of their two murder victims. Adding to the strong cast are Mindy Robinson as a not-so-bright stripper who hooks up with Paul, convinced he’s in the CIA. Rebel Wilson is Adrian’s nurse, who later marries him. Her revelation about him in court is particularly brutal and funny.
Even with A-list stars Wahlberg and Johnson and Bay as director, Pain & Gain’s true star is its story, in all of its glorious complexities and twists. It doesn’t matter that you know how this crime drama ends — the film suggests as much with its opening of Daniel on the run from the Miami police and SWAT team — because the fascination and grisly fun is in how it gets there.
Pain & Gain
Directed by Michael Bay. Screenplay by Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely. A Paramount release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, Levis Commons, Woodland Mall Cinema, and Sundance Kid Drive-In. Rated R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout, and drug use. Running time: 124 minutes.
Critic's rating: ***½
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.