Sunday, May 5, 2013


“Pain and Gain” (*** OUT OF ****) represents a drastic change for blockbuster director Michael Bay.  Typically, Bay makes spectacular, over-the-top, plot-driven extravaganzas, with traditional heroes and villains.  During his eighteen years in Hollywood, Bay has earned a reputation as a lucrative hack with the “Transformers” trilogy, “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” “The Island,” and “The Rock.”   What this character-driven melodrama lacks in mind-blowing spectacle and traditional heroes, "Pain & Gain" compensates for with a story so weird you have to wonder.  Indeed, this gritty, class-conscious, blue-collar, crime thriller unreels like a bizarre comedy of errors.  Mentally challenged, mesomorphic, murderers prey on cretinous victims begging for the worst, and the authorities wind up doing a double-take.  “Captain America: The First Avenger” co-scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely along with Bay have adapted a series of “Miami New Times” articles that Florida-based columnist Pete Collins penned about the notorious Sun Gym gang.  Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson, and Anthony Mackie are cast as three, sadistic, steroid-shooting, bodybuilders who rival the Three Stooges in idiocy.  This wholly unsavory threesome inflicts pain, i.e., violence, death, and dismemberment, on their unfortunate victims to gain their share of the American Dream.  Accurately enough, Bay has described “Pain & Gain” as a synthesis of “Fargo” and “Pulp Fiction.”  “It's a dark comedy,” Bay explains, “and it's mostly true."  Bay shoots the works literally to give this minor movie about a bunch of nobodies a stunning, larger-than-life quality.  Most of what this trio does is pretty appalling, but it is so appalling you have to fight the urge of laugh.  Law and order rules Miami, but the authorities were indifferent to the depredations of the Sun Gym gang.  The Miami Police allowed their own prejudices toward Colombians to blind them to the threat that the bodybuilders posed.  The first victim of the Sun Gym gang spent time in Colombia, but he never smuggled narcotics.  Bay deserves credit for getting back to the basics with this hilarious but abrasive police procedural that is reminiscent of his “Bad Boys” movies.  Bay tells this wacky tale from two perspectives, alternating between Ed Harris’ retired private eye and Mark Wahlberg’s bossy bodybuilder.

Wahlberg has a field day as the real-life person Daniel Lugo who rhapsodized about fitness.  The actor looks like somebody qualified to be a personal trainer.  He saunters around confidently with muscles bulging, and he isn’t shy about them.  Initially, Lupo served time for swindling senior citizens out of their savings.  Now, he has gotten his life back on track, enough so to convince gym manager John Mese (Rob Corddry of “Hot Tub Time Machine”) to hire him.  Daniel promises Mese that membership will triple under his tenure.  Surprisingly, Lupo lives up to his claims.  Indeed, Daniel can do no wrong, until he decides to take Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie of “Gangster Squad”) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson of “The Tooth Fairy”) under his wings as personal trainers, too.  He learns Doyle has done time for cocaine, but the massively built Doyle has forsaken liquor and found Jesus.  When Adrian isn’t pumping iron at the gym, he has a lowly job at a market.  More often than not, Adrian cannot pay his rent on time.  Poor Adrian stabs steroid shots into his body, but he suffers from erectile dysfunction.  He meets a sweet nurse at a doctor’s office, Robin Peck (Rebel Wilson of “Pitch Perfect”), who assures him that his condition will improve.  These guys are pals for life.  Essentially, Daniel behaves like Moe, the Alpha male of the Three Stooges, while Adrian and Paul are respectively Larry and Curley.

One of Daniel’s clients is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub of “Galaxy Quest”); a wealthy but conceited business man who owns a Schlotzsky's Deli and rarely has a kind word for anybody.  Everybody detests Victor.  Daniel feels nothing but contempt for Victor.  Nevertheless, he envies Victor’s success.  Daniel convinces Adrian and a reluctant Doyle to help him abduct and torture Kershaw.  Daniel believes Victor will capitulate under pressure and sign away everything just to survive the ordeal.  Eventually, Victor capitulates.  Daniel and his cronies get Victor to sign all the papers, and Daniel convinces a notary public to validate the documents.  Incredibly, they cannot kill Victor.  It’s not that they lack the courage. Daniel and his cronies are too inept.  They try to kill him, but Victor defies Daniel’s best laid plans.  Eventually, after playing hiding-go-seek around Miami from the Sun Gym Gang, Victor convinces a private eye to investigate his strange case.  While Ed DuBois (Ed Harris of “The Rock”) is investigating the gang, Daniel and his cronies are living high, wide, and handsome.  Basically, they got away with everything Victor owned, but they didn’t put him on ice.  Unfortunately, Daniel’s accomplices need more cash like the money they extorted from Victor.  In the end, their greed sinks them when they try to pull the same stunt on a porn entrepreneur and everything goes wrong.

The revelation in “Pain and Gain” is Dwayne Johnson’s performance as a born-again, low-life coke snorter.  You’ve never seen the Rock like he is in “Pain & Gain.”  Coming on the heels of his earlier opus “Snitch,” Johnson has broadened the range of roles for his gallery of characters.  Aside from Johnson, who resembles the Rock of Gibraltar, Wahlberg and Mackie have bulked up considerably.  A brawny, bossy Wahlberg never misses a chance to flex his muscles and behave like a tyrant.  Wahlberg hasn’t done anything like “Pain and Gain.”  This muscular authenticity on the part of the stars provides “Pain & Gain” with a wealth of creditability.  Of course, Bay and company have tampered with the crime, but their alterations don’t devastate the outlandish source material.  In real life, the man that Dwayne Johnson plays neither robbed an armored truck nor got his big toe shot off by a sharp-shooting cop.  Meantime, Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson, and Ed Harris round out a uniformly excellent cast, and Rebel steals every scene she has with anybody, even when it’s the heavily armed Miami Dade SWAT team.  Altogether, despite its irreverent comedy, “Pain & Gain” may turn off Bay’s target audience with its excessive length, R-rating, and unsavory characters.