Florida-based fitness trainer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) has a buff body but can’t get the cash he needs to realise his dreams. Driven to extremes, Daniel hatches an insane kidnap-and-extortion scheme recruiting brain-dead bodybuilders Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) to target one of his wealthy gym clients, obnoxious entrepreneur Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Needless to say, things go horribly wrong.
Based on a ghastly true story documented by Miami journalist Pete Collins in a series of articles and his like-named book, Pain & Gain might have drawn a better reception from critics had it been made by any filmmaker other than the bête-noire of serious cineastes, Michael Bay. A man whose name has become synonymous with a crash-bang-wallop style of blockbuster filmmaking despised by critics but adored by fourteen year old kids and, let’s face it, more than a few less discerning grownups the world over. Yet viewed in retrospect, hiring Bay to direct this steroid-amped satire of the American Dream was a stroke in genius. His bombastic, hyper-fetishistic style envisions exactly the kind of perverse action-fantasy the real-life ’roid-addled protagonists probably imagined for themselves. Daniel Lugo and Paul Doyle inhabit the twisted flip side of a Michael Bay movie, with all that that entails: buff heroes, bodacious babes, a mile-a-minute pace and big, improbable set-pieces - all the more astounding in this instance because, as the opening narration informs us “unfortunately, this is based on a true story.”
Set in 1995, the year of Bay’s Bad Boys, the film adapts body-building and the obsession with bigger is better into a metaphor for American capitalism gone mad. Co-written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, the duo interestingly behind Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the script lambasts the lunkheaded, greed-is-good-on-steroids philosophy eating America from the inside, as embodied in the character of maniacal motivational speaker Johnny Woo (Ken Jeong, of The Hangover (2008) and sublime sitcom Community) whose absurd mantra (“Don’t be a don’t-er, be a do-er!”), Daniel adopts as his own. The film drew its fair share of criticism in the US, not least from relatives of the real victims, for a perceived attempt to paint the perpetrators of a heinous crime in a semi-sympathetic light. But none of the characters, including the victims, emerge as sympathetic even though Markus, McFeeley and, yes, Bay succeed in making them compelling.
The film is perfectly cast with stars Wahlberg and Johnson subverting their established screen personas. Wahlberg’s boyish charm makes Daniel Lugo an almost pitiable figure that brings to mind Oliver Hardy’s famous description of his own comic persona as a dumb guy all the dumber for actually believing himself smart. Johnson is a revelation as the deluded born again Christian-cum-closet psychotic whose antics seem off-the-wall even before he gets hooked on cocaine. No Michael Bay movie would be complete without a scene-stealing turn from a pneumatic starlet. Israeli supermodel Bar Paly injects some serious va-va-voom yet also displays solid comic charisma in the role of the Eurotrash Barbie-like stripper whom Daniel easily dupes into serving as the honey trap in his ingenious scheme. Elsewhere, Bay relishes an array of absurd supporting turns including Rebel Wilson as a nunchaku wielding nympho nurse. She proves the surprise love interest for Adrian, whose preoccupation with his steroid-shrunk genitals yields further cheap laughs.
Coming across like a Three Stooges movie penned by Elmore Leonard, the meandering narrative gets a little clunky in parts which is more due to Bay’s fondness for eye-catching digressions than the solid script. But just when the viewer feels ready to jump ship, Bay reels you back in with another outrageous plot twist. Things get so outrageous in fact that towards the finale, the film actually throws up a title card insisting “this is still a true story.” The frantic failed kidnap attempts are flat-out hilarious including one staged like a parody of a bad Cannon ninja movie from the Eighties, but Bay’s peculiar preoccupation with gay sex toys adds a faint though still unwelcome note of homophobia.
It is a scattershot satire, less than subtle and routinely crass but, hey, that’s Bay. More importantly for once the hyberbolic tone befits the subject matter. Plus, you can’t help but relish one laugh out loud moment where, in the midst of a failed robbery and accidental multiple murder, Daniel takes time out to clear his head and pump some iron.