Who says all “based on a true story” movies have to take themselves seriously? Regardless of how true-to-life the events of “Pain and Gain” are, the film offers a ballsy take on a crime thriller, namely in being unafraid of comic territory.
In what other circumstances would Michael Bay board a project such as this? OK, in total fairness, these are the types of movies Bay should be making, ones in which superficiality and outrageous acts of violence play an important role in telling the story. The characters are body builders, and delusional ones at that, drunk on an idea that the American dream is one for the taking (or maybe, more honestly, that money is good to have and worth taking by any means necessary).
Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a trainer with big ideas and a can-do spirit. Daniel begins to work out Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a wealthy business owner, and conspires to kidnap him and extort his entire net worth. To do so, he recruits ‘roided-up gym member Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and the sometimes-violence prone Jesus-lover Paul (Dwayne Johnson). Between the three of them, they have enough brains to pull it off, but not enough to do it cleanly.
Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have a lot of fun with the script, which takes liberties with the true story as chronicled by Pete Collins in the name of entertainment. As dumb as the film portrays Lugo and Co., they had to be smart enough to get away with it as long as they did.
These guys aren’t necessarily anti-heroes, but you don’t find yourself rooting for them to succeed either. Viewers will most likely want them to get away with it long enough to be entertained, but short enough that the story feels real, because no way could things end well for these three. The script knows it, opening with the police going after Daniel and flashing back to tell the rest of the story.
“Pain and Gain” fits itself into a narrow intersection of sorts between crime drama, thriller and comedy. It’s not an easy blend to pull off, but Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackie prove to be the kind of versatile talents capable of making it work. They’ve all had experience in all these genres (though Mackie is a stranger to comedy) and done so successfully, and there’s no denying their star appeal.
If only we had enough to get a real sense of who these men were. Their motivation, as provided in the script, comes off as phony. Lugo doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who needs hokey self-motivation get-rich-quick seminars to justify his criminal behavior. These men likely did what they did from a darker, more desperate place than wanting the money for penile injections to counteract impotence (in the case of Mackie’s Adrian). These things reveal the “what could have been” had the script gone the darker crime thriller route.
Instead, we have the Bay route. Gorgeous women, physical humor and absurdity around every corner. “Pain and Gain” is a lot of fun in this regard, but it makes a sacrifice to do so. In ways, the interpretation plays out like a poor man’s Coen brothers movie (there are even detached toes). It’s a tale of characters getting way in over their heads and the depths to which they’ll stoop to survive or perpetuate their delusional reality.
“Pain and Gain” goes on a bit long for something that again, leans toward comedy, and it has two distinctive acts that feel a bit disconnected as a result, but it remains tonally the same throughout, even in the way it mixes genres. And the humor comes in unexpected ways, avoiding the clichés of films about small-time crooks.
There’s lots to like about “Pain and Gain,” even if the finished product would best be described as silly. The entertainment factor does a pretty good job of drawing our attention away from what would be major flaws in a traditional “based on a true story” thriller. Taking risks like this aren’t easy or likely to work out, but there’s enough here that “Pain and Gain” pays off.
Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Pete Collins (articles)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shaloub