Film Review: Pain & Gain

Bodybuilders turn to kidnapping and murder in a bizarre true-crime story from director Michael Bay.

With a story as offbeat as they come, and a hard-working cast of audience favorites, Pain & Gain could have been a breakout hit. But somewhere in the transition from magazine articles to the big screen, the plot and characters went from wacky to overbearing.

Based on Miami New Times stories by Pete Collins, the film tells how Miami's "Sun Gym" gang of bodybuilders went on a crime spree in 1994 that included kidnapping, murder, dismemberment and drugs. As directed by Michael Bay, Pain & Gain resembles a ramped-up version of Bad Boys without any heroes—apart from a repugnant "deli king" millionaire and an over-the-hill private investigator who shows up late in the plot.

The basic facts are simple. Gym rat Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) wants a better life, and uses his fixation on Scarface and the Godfather movies to come up with a plot to kidnap Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a foul-mouthed bigot who built a real-estate empire from a delicatessen. Helping Lugo are steroid-addled Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), who needs money for penile injections, and recently released convict Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), an AA advocate who has come to realize that his best talent is beating up people.

The crime goes spectacularly wrong, bringing in retired cop Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris), and leading to a second set of crimes involving porn king Frank Grin (Michael Rispoli).

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely shake up the storyline by switching narrators and flashing back to previous incidents. Still, the significance of individual events often seems to elude them. They pound home cheap laughs, like the sex toys in the warehouse where Kershaw is tortured, and gloss over larger themes that could have led to less predictable scenes.

"Did you ever just get tired of who you are?" Lugo asks early in the plot, and the movie toys with the idea that we can use phony self-help schemes to "improve" ourselves enough to join the rich. "I feel like I look good," Doyle says, out of his mind on coke and steroids, and in his world that's all that counts. But ultimately the film devolves into a chase story with low ambitions.

Don't blame the cast, who don't hold back in their performances. Wahlberg, who played a similar character in 1998's The Big Hit, is earnest and endearingly flatfooted, while Mackie refuses to flinch at his unsavory material. Johnson's appeal remains indestructible despite his dimwitted character's drug abuse and violence. Harris brings class to a project that needs it, while Shalhoub's work is close to miraculous.

So the fault may lie with Bay, who lives in Miami and who has nursed this project for years. Pain & Gain was trumpeted in the press as his return to "low-budget" filmmaking. The movie does have less helicopter footage than a typical Transformers entry, but Bay stills turn a simple shot of a detective's house into a mini-tribute to Sergio Leone's crane work.

Bay sees big but thinks small. His vision can be hypnotic, but is often at odds with the material. The director can defend the film's relentless focus on Kershaw's torture, but not his decision to portray it in the jaunty style of a buddy-cop bromance. Even when Pain & Gain plumbs the depths of tastelessness, it looks and moves like a high-powered sports car.