By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Pain & Gain is director Michael Bay's attempt at making a "small" movie, after fleecing the world for years with mega-budget boom. It's typically sledgehammer-subtle, albeit with a $25 million budget that wouldn't cover cleanup costs for one of his Transformers flicks.
Bay simply makes literal a style often described as steroid cinema, swapping mechanical behemoths for flesh-and-blood ones like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and a beefed-up Mark Wahlberg. They don't cost as much to construct as Autobots and Decepticons but apparently are just as malleable to Bay's misguided vision. Pain & Gain is a movie living up to only half its title.
The story is based in the sort of reality Bay has no experience in presenting, much less satirizing as he seems to want to try. It's a tale of unspeakable violence committed by ruthless criminals that's presented as a buddy comedy. The more we're expected to laugh, the less we feel inclined to do so.
First the facts: In 1994, fitness trainers Daniel Lugo and Adrian Doorbal at Miami's Sun Gym devised a plan to kidnap a businessman client and force him into signing over his life savings. The scheme went horribly wrong, resulting in the victim's prolonged torture and a grisly murder attempt. Nonetheless it inspired Lugo and Doorbal into another scheme leading to the brutal murders and dismemberment of two people in 1995.
Are you laughing yet?
Now the movie: Bay sees this scenario solely as an adrenaline-pumping comedy of errors, spearheaded by Wahlberg and Johnson, two of today's most popular action stars. Names and facts are changed or embellished, seemingly to protect the guilty from being considered anything less than antiheroes. Pain & Gain is a shockingly amoral movie yet occasionally rambunctious enough to make viewers overlook that.
Especially in the first half-hour, when Lugo (Wahlberg) lays out his deluded view of the world: Being unfit is unpatriotic, abs are everything, and life is best guided not by conscience but a self-help guru (Ken Jeong). Then the easy jokes creep in: Doorbal's (Anthony Mackie) penile dysfunction due to steroid use, his girlfriend/nurse (Rebel Wilson, one of the movie's several sexist stereotypes), a composite, born-again accomplice (Johnson), and various groin-related gags.
The movie's best performance — and worst defamation — belongs to Tony Shalhoub, playing the first victim as a conniving, egotistical jerk who deserves to be kidnapped, maimed and ruined financially. Even if the characterization were true, it wouldn't deserve such treatment. But maybe that's all we can expect from Bay, who clearly understands soulless machinery better than human beings and their emotions.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.