Judge Jason Panella is here to pump...you up.
"Unfortunately, this is a true story."
In the hands of the right director, Pain & Gain could have been a fascinating cautionary tale about the dark side of the American dream. However, Michael Bay directed the movie.
Facts of the Case
Loosely based on a series of crimes that took place in 1999, Pain & Gain follows three bodybuilders—Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter), Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker), and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson, Fast Five)—as they try to extort a bunch of money from scumbag Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, Barton Fink). But the trio's dreams of carving out a big ol' slice of the American dream quickly turn into nightmares.
After blowing up a lot of things with the Transformer franchise (and making a lot of money in the process), director Michael Bay decided to work on something low-key and character-driven. Granted, Pain & Gain does operate on a smaller-scale than pretty much anything he's made since the mid-'90s. Despite Bay's deep aspirations, the resulting movie is a narrative cesspool that never gets close to the smart social commentary it's trying to be.
Pain & Gain sets things up quickly. We have Lugo, a trainer at the Miami-based Sun Gym. Lugo seems like an earnest guy, but he's also frustrated—he puts lots of time and effort into making the gym an awesome place for people who want huge muscles, yet he's still driving a crappy car. An obnoxious motivational speaker (Ken Jeong, Community) convinces Lugo that he's a "doer," not a "don't-er." And a doer, Lugo reasons, he deserves the Good Life for all of his hard work. So Lugo recruits fellow Sun Gym trainer Doorbal and ex-con Doyle to take what's theirs, which, as you probably guessed, results in a series of increasingly grim crimes that go on for way too long. It doesn't help that the movie's narrative is a lumbering beast that keeps making wrong turns before moving forward. It's hard not to compare Pain & Gain to the Coen brothers' body of work, since Joel and Ethan traffic in this sort of material regularly. Bay doesn't, however, and his attempts navigate a morality tale like theirs is painful to watch. The protagonists do stupid, awful things throughout the whole film, and Bay slaps his trademarked shine on the proceedings: there may be fewer explosions than his previous films, but almost every shot involves slow motion, an inward-moving dolly, or awesome-looking framing techniques. I think Bay was shooting for this off-putting juxtaposition to get at many Americans' obsession with excess, but it really just comes off like, well, another Michael Bay movie. Just because Bay and writing team Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe) seem to be in on the joke doesn't make it a very good one.
And speaking of jokes, Pain & Gain just isn't that funny. The film's sense of humor hasn't evolved beyond middle-school meanness: the bulk of the jokes are centered on the mere fact that obese people, Christians, and homosexuals even exist. (Also, boobs.) Bay might've been trying to point out how awful Lugo and his pals are, but insane over-selling of all of the laughs seems to suggest otherwise. Some early scenes of the trio's criminal ineptitude earn some chuckles (especially a handful involving Johnson), but Pain & Gain seems to sidestep its move toward black comedy altogether and just head straight for ugly.
Wahlberg, Johnson, and Mackie are all passable as the Sun Gym gang, but they never really make their characters feel like anything resembling human beings. Wahlberg gives Lugo an amoral cluelessness that's at least moderately convincing, but it's still missing a vital spark. Mackie's workout-freak Doorbal is played mostly for cheap laughs about the side effects of steroids. Johnson's Doyle is an ex-con, ex-addict who turned to Jesus in prison. Johnson has a likeableness that partially salvages his role, but he still doesn't come out unscathed. The supporting cast get it worse, though. Shalhoub is in pure paycheck collection mode, a fact rubbed in the audience's face every couple of minutes. Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect), who plays Doorbal's nurse girlfriend Robin, is used just as a delivery method for jokes about Doorbal's erectile problems. Bar Paly (The Ruins), the woman Lugo desperately wants to impress, is…I'm really not sure why she's in the movie, other than to be oggled by Bay's camera. The only actor who does a great job in the film is Ed Harris (Pollock). Harris plays Ed DuBois, the private investigator trailing the trio. His scenes all feel like they're taken from a different, better movie that I desperately wanted to watch. Almost all of these characters provide an unneeded jumble of voice-over narration, jumping from one character to the next without warning.
Paramount's release of Pain & Gain (Blu-ray) looks and sounds incredible, regardless of what you think of the movie itself. The 2.40:1/1080p transfer is sharp, clear, and colorful. The level of detail is incredible in the picture, and the colors are consistently rich. There is a ton, no surprise, a ton of the orange and teal filtering that seems to plague Bay's movies, but that's not a problem of the transfer. Similarly, the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track is massive: it has impressive range and great detail, with all of the channels given a good workout. How about bonus content? How about Paramount didn't give you any. Well, they did include a DVD and Ultraviolet digital copy of the film, as well as some coupons for Mark Wahlberg's nutrition supplement line and for sporting events through Ticketmaster.
I really think Bay was going for something different here. That doesn't mean it works. Despite some bright spots (mostly thanks to Dwayne Johnson and Ed Harris), Pain & Gain is mostly the former.
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