Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain tells the true-life story of personal trainer-turned-criminal Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) who decides to procure his dream life – through an over-the-top extortion scheme. Instead of hard work and savvy business maneuvering, Lugo concludes that his best chance at the high life – fast cars, hot women, and million dollar homes – is to steal from an especially wealthy, albeit smarmy, gym client named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). To get the job done, Lugo enlists the aid of body-building friend Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), who help kidnap and torture Kershaw - until the Miami business tycoon agrees to sign over his riches.
When the police turn a blind eye to Kershaw’s misfortune, the “Sun Gym Gang” openly flaunts the fruits of their crimes, flashing everything from an oceanside house to a prize-winning greyhound without penalty. However, as retired private investigator Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) digs into Lugo’s sudden financial affluence, he suggests the Sun Gym Gang will strike again – with deadly consequences.
After a string of CGI blockbusters, Bay positioned Pain & Gain as a personal piece of filmmaking – focused on characters rather than big budget effects. Of course, most of the “characters” are real people – adapted for film by screenwriting team Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger) from the pages of Pete Collins’ Miami New Times expose on the Sun Gym Gang and their crimes. Any adaptation of the Daniel Lugo story would require a careful balance between comedy and glorification: does Bay, a director who isn’t exactly known for subtle social commentary, deliver a worthy adaptation in Pain & Gain?
Unsurprisingly, the director’s unrestrained approach results in an unapologetic and over-the-top retelling of real-life events that never stops to develop anything but surface level motivations and caricatures. The story itself is stranger than fiction, with a number of moments that will illicit nervous laughs or cringe-inducing squirms – which should be enough for certain moviegoers to consider the film a success. Even at nearly 1/10th the cost of his blockbuster budgets, Pain & Gain retains Bay’s usual flare – aided by solid performances from the cast. Still, fans expecting the director’s trademark eye-popping action might be underwhelmed, since Pain & Gain is much smaller in scale (which applies to explosions too).
In spite of its true story roots, the film favors style over substance – including a number of the Bay’s “staple” filmmaking shots (such as faking a continuous take by connecting separate interactions by passing the camera through a hole in the wall). The approach is more effective when filming giant CGI robots, but in events where actual people were brutally tortured and murdered, the lack of restraint makes for an awkward moviegoing experience. Most notably, real murder victims are reduced to one-note “tramps” and “criminals” in order to present the monstrous actions of the film’s protagonists as humorous.
Admittedly, Pain & Gain‘s leading men are not intended to be likable or sympathetic, but regardless, they’re not particularly enjoyable to watch as movie characters, either. Even if Pain & Gain had been a shot-for-shot recreation of every single one of Lugo and Doorbal’s criminal (and non-criminal) actions, it doesn’t mean that what’s onscreen makes for worthwhile (or funny) viewing. The trick of adaptation, especially one as controversial as Pain & Gain, is to turn factual events into compelling onscreen drama. The setup could make for a captivating (and even challenging) story, but the movie revels in the same debauchery that Lugo and his team obsessed over – replacing insight (or witty black humor) with shots that come dangerously close to glorifying the real-life torture and killing.
Performances are strong and Wahlberg, Johnson, as well as Mackie all present competent “dark comedy” portrayals of the real-life Sun Gym Gang – but attempts to explore their individual arcs are regularly undercut by excessive and callow gags. Johnson’s God-fearing Boyle takes the most fictional liberties, but is also the most likable of the trio; though, even in sympathetic moments, he’s little more than an underdeveloped religious caricature – whose reservations fuel plot beats but fail to offer worthwhile payoff. Shalhoub’s Kershaw is equally problematic – since he’s detestable enough, yet not a particularly interesting foil for the Lugo, Doorbal, and Boyle (either as victim or antagonist).
As a result, in an effort to make the unlikable leads more accessible, Pain & Gain includes an intrusive collection of voiceovers – relying on every single principle character to supplement the onscreen action with extensive narration (Walhberg, Mackie, Johnson, Shalhoub, and even Harris). Since the film forgoes subtle development in favor of excessive comedy beats, the responsibility of explaining motivations falls directly to the characters – and on multiple occasions each one outright describes their feelings to the audience. Despite the tacked-on approach, the voiceovers succeed in adding much-needed perspective and (surface-level) insight into the Sun Gym Gang. That said, the same information would have been more successful as actual dialogue – had the script relied on nuanced character interactions instead.
Still, despite thin characters, restrained action, and a questionable presentation of real-life victims (among other drawbacks), the various twists and turns in the Pain & Gain story will be enough to keep certain moviegoers mildly entertained. Not every element of the story comes with successful payoff (especially the contributions of Israeli model Bar Paly), although an increasingly erratic and clumsy crime spree delivers several tense (not to mention bizarre) comedy moments for viewers who are onboard with Michael Bay’s stylized approach.
To put the film in perspective, moviegoers who are excited by the idea of Ken Jeong as an over-the-top motivational speaker will likely enjoy the Pain & Gain offerings – whereas those who found the actor’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon role to be abrasive, could find the entire Pain & Gain experience to be equally off-putting. It’s not a bad film, but not a particularly captivating effort either – resulting in a convoluted and flat adaptation that only tells the story of the Sun Gym Gang without adding meaningful insight or reflection to 20 year-old headlines.
If you’re still on the fence about Pain & Gain, check out the red band trailer below:
Pain & Gain runs 130 minutes and is Rated R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use.
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For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our Pain and Gain episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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