Intelligence isn’t a word often attributed to the films of Michael Bay. The man behind mindless action pieces like The Rock, Armageddon, and the Transformers trilogy is better known for blowing things up than employing quality scripts or encouraging fine acting, yet by wholeheartedly embracing stupidity in his latest film, the director exhibits a surprising amount of smarts.
Temporarily freed from his summer blockbuster shackles, Bay’s self-aware, dark humored Pain & Gain is not only his most entertaining work to date, but also his brainiest. Thanks to sharp writing, a small budget, and committed idiocy from its leads, the true story of three mind-bogglingly inept body-building criminals is a tongue-in-cheek masterpiece and an unexpected treasure.
Unfolding against the sun and fun of mid-‘90s Miami, Pain & Gain chronicles how not to achieve the American Dream. Ludicrous to the core, the plot that personal trainer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) concocts to swindle his dirtbag millionaire client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) out of everything he owns has no chance of longterm success, yet his confidence is so unbridled that it could certainly sway the right knucklehead accomplices.
Enter fellow Sun Gym employees, the scrawny and impotent Adrien Doorball (Anthony Mackie) and newly religious ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), each looking for a better life and unprepared for the insane ride that follows. A fast rise and an even faster fall later, they’re all in over their heads and headed to jail with one of the more unbelievable cellblock stories.
Merging his verbal tenacity from The Departed with Boogie Nights’ drug-fueled, ego-trip naiveté, Wahlberg’s Lugo is a meathead wonder, fueled by the faux-confidence of gangster films and get-rich-quick schemes. Spouting lines like “Snatch that Cabbage Patch!” when a little person gets in his way or bullying/inspiring neighborhood kids with his short-sighted philosophy, his bizarro-comic lunacy knows no bounds.
Just as impressive in his long-prophesied great performance is Johnson. After flirting with drama (Snitch), action (G.I. Joe: Retaliation), and Disney (The Tooth Fairy; The Game Plan), he handles the gullibility of Doyle’s cokehead born again Christian remarkably well. Much of his success is due to the witty lines from Thor and Captain America scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, but beside Wahlberg and Mackie’s laudable skill sets, Johnson ably rises to the acting challenge as well.
Anchored by character voiceovers that give the film a confessionary feel and enlivened by a refined (read: restricted budget) version of Bay’s music video style, Pain & Gain makes it easy to get caught up in its well-orchestrated ridiculousness. Yet as the authorities’ nets close in and the trio’s decision-making swings from moronic to downright suicidal, the film takes perhaps its most impressive turn.
Whereas a typical rise-and-fall crime saga like Scarface (an inspiration for Lugo’s blueprint) or Blow has its moody characters wallow in the misery of consequences, the outrageousness of the bodybuilders keeps the film from losing its pitch black comic edge. Too dense to let a little murder dampen their mood, these antiheroes continue in their wacky ways, remaining delusional to the last drop. Utilizing the immense talent required to pull of being so convincingly dumb, Bay and his dialed-in cast shine throughout and deliver one of the year’s more unlikely hits.
Rated R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use.
Pain & Gain is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.