Michel Bay is hated by a certain audience but has a fanbase and he caters for their needs. After receiving much scorn (but even more money) from his Transformers series, the director goes to smaller budgeted lengths in his newest film. Pain & Gain may sound like a boxing drama but is, in actual fact, far different to that – in fact it is far different to most of Bay’s recent output. The film sees fitness instructor / bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) aspire to have more in life, recruiting fellow bodybuilders Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) in a plot to kidnap a wealthy gym member (Tony Shalhoub) and take his vast financial assets. The film aspires to be a Natural Born Killers satirical flick but it doesn’t really come together offering more pain than gain.
The plot has vast potential and we are constantly reminded of how it is all based on real events. That is problematic, as the real case and this film differ a great deal, but more than that the plot’s tone is completely unsettled. The film aims to be a comedy / satire of the American dream and the narcissism that comes with body image but it feels a bit ham-fisted. As we progress there are highlights but it is a messy affair and fails to amuse. Dark comedy needs to be judged well and this isn’t really. Pain & Gain is like Seven Psychopaths had Martin McDonagh been on drugs and pissed while writing and directing. Bay’s film has flashes of hyperactivity and mountains of potential but cannot help feeling like a missed opportunity.
It really would have been interesting to see a documentary on this real-life crime because, as a comedy, this film feels inappropriate. For starters the film’s questionable morals will upset some (making criminals into best bud protagonists). Plus the bodybuilding sector may get hot over the film’s negative showcasing of the gym community. There are dark jokes about rape, race, drugs, sex and murder but the film fails to balance the morals behind them with laughter and meaning. Still it isn’t that which scuppers the film, it is the overall lack of laughter and, despite the enjoyment that comes with certain scenes, this grainy flick fails to be the rush of adrenaline it strives to be.
That said the cast deserve big praise for their commitment because in spite of the dodgy material, all involved work at it and get behind the hallucinatory lunacy. Mark Wahlberg is fully invested into the lead and offers some madness that feels infectious among all involved. Anthony Mackie is a bit overshadowed but stands out enough but the film is certainly Dwayne Johnson’s show. Much like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales this is a picture with ideas, messily presented but with a great enlivening performance by Dwayne Johnson. The muscle-bound Miami local is impressively impulsive in his part and actually gives the film many of its few laughs that work. Actually, it is only because of bits with the main cast and appearances by comic talents like Tony Shalhoub and Rebel Wilson that this appears to have visible elements of a comedy.
Bay has certainly directed something different which is respectable. There are inspired aspects but Pain & Gain is more a celebration of criminal activity than a satire of it. Sex, coke, violence and protein shakes surround a story of the American dream that could have been much more but sadly can’t get it up. The cast may not save it entirely but they do their job well. The material needed straining out before being approved. This film has ambitions but falls short of them and as opposed to catching audiences off guard, Pain & Gain may only leave you baffled as whether it is a comedy or not. Oh and Ken Jeong’s thankfully short-lived character does little to help with that query.