It’s too bad that Pain & Gain comes out at a time when drive-in theaters are all but extinct.
Michael Bay’s comedic drama wouldn’t be negatively affected by tinny speakers, scenes missed during make-out sessions or long walks to the nacho stand. Distractions are actually a plus when watching this film. Is there a cineplex that allows patrons to bring in a lawn chair?
It’s a nice surprise from the action director, who is working with a budget that might have covered his electricity bill for Armageddon. Just as Robert De Niro will some day be forgiven for every Fockers European Vacation that he makes, nothing at this point can save Bay from the career stain of Pearl Harbor and the second Transformers movie. The filmmaker had little to gain from leaving his comfort zone, and he should be commended for trying.
The story is based on real-life events involving 1990s Miami bodybuilders, who stole from rich clients in an escalating scheme that involved kidnapping and torture. It’s a homemade protein-and-steroids smoothie of a plot, combining elements of gore, self-parody, 1990s nostalgia overload and the attempt to say something — while actually saying absolutely nothing — about the American dream.
This might have been a hopeless mess if not for the talented cast, starting with Mark Wahlberg, who seems to be using the shallow, over-pumped Daniel Lugo character to deconstruct his own myth. (The Calvin Klein underwear is a nice touch.) Rounding out the bumbling gang is Dwayne Johnson as an ex-con who found Jesus and Anthony Mackie as a frustrated steroids user. The reliable Tony Shalhoub is excellent as a jerk businessman whose knack for survival becomes a running joke.
Pain & Gain is filmed in a frenetic style, with all the quick edits, excessive slow-motion and attention deficit directing that you’d expect. But that style fits much better here, in part because the protagonists are over-energized juicers. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Lugo is exactly the type of person who would own Bad Boys II on VHS.
The introduction to each character and the Sun Gym workplace includes some solid writing, setting a comically depraved tone. Intentional or not, there are signs that everyone on set was having fun. During an especially Goodfellas-esque scene where the authorities are bearing down on Lugo, a Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones song blares. The Scorsese fans who aren’t offended will smile.
Problems start surfacing midway through the second act, when the bottomless buffet of mayhem continues, as the narrative momentum is lost. The filmmakers exhaust their best moves in the first 40 minutes of the two hour-plus movie. Pain & Gain actually rewards taking frequent five-minute breaks from the theater — if Bay doesn’t want to edit his films, audiences can do it themselves.
Pain & Gain
Rated R, 130 minutes.