A variety of colourful and largely abhorrent characters cross paths and butt heads in this gleefully gruesome crime comedy, loosely based on a true story, from action specialist Michael Bay (The Transformers series, Bad Boys).
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) a body builder, fitness instructor and petty conman, is tired of the rat race and wants a slice of the American Dream for himself. Hampered by a strong aversion to hard work outside of the gym and inspired by a sleazy motivational speaker (Ken Jeong in a small but amusing cameo) he hits on the idea of coercing a wealthy entrepreneur, Victor Kershaw, (Tony Shalhoub) into signing over all of his assets by the simple expedient of torturing him until he cracks. Fellow gym rat, Adrian Doorbal, (Anthony Mackie) is good to go, and the pair recruit a third partner, recently paroled cokehead turned Born Again Christian, Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson, absolutely running away with the film). As so often happens in these scenarios, it doesn’t take long for a combination of greed, recklessness and outright stupidity to send the trio spiralling toward disaster.
Pain & Gain is the kind of movie the Coen Brothers might have made if they’d done a lot of cocaine in the ‘80s. It’s bright, bold, crass and populated with some of the most hilariously obnoxious characters to ever grace the screen. Wahlberg’s Lugo is an incredibly self-deluded figure, a man who spouts platitudes about loyalty, hard work and the inherent goodness of the American character while spending every waking moment lying, cheating and stealing, and about the only character who elicits even an iota of sympathy is Ed Harris’ private detective, a decent man hired by Kershaw to reclaim his money after Lugo and co. fail to kill him.
Those with no taste for Bay’s filmic aesthetic are unlikely to reassess their views based on this work, but this is easily his best movie in years. Filtered through Bay’s sensibilities, the film’s Miami setting is an eye-popping pastel carnival of venal delights, populated by louche lunkheads and skin-baring arm candy, the ultimate example of American excess. There’s a hint of Carl Hiaasen to the proceedings, but essentially this is Bay’s thesis film, a dark paean to the bigger-louder-faster-more impulse that demonstrates a talent for satire and a level of self-awareness that is, frankly, surprising after the bombast of his prior career.
For all the violence and mutilation on display – and there’s a lot of it, particularly in the third act – Pain & Gain is comedy, but it’s of the blackest stripe. This isn’t a movie about good people overcoming adversity, but bad people getting their just desserts. A strong stomach and a cynical sensibility are mandatory in Bay’s movie universe, and those possessed of both will have a ball.