“I gotta get a pump”
I like when actors not only play to their strengths, but also make a concerted effort to do so. Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson saw an opportunity to have fun playing a couple of bumbling amateur criminals—waiving their salaries along with director Michael Bay for backend deals—and had faith audiences would come to see them make light of their physiques and act the fools. Pain & Gain is a perfect venue for their somewhat limited skill sets as its true to life tale of greed and one very warped quest for the American dream is entertaining from front to back. The lengths these gym rats go are too far and too crazy for it not to be true. Yes the filmmakers took liberties; it’s not a documentary.
Seeing what really happened during this violently tragic year would be an enthralling story in its own right that shouldn’t diminish the successful enterprise Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely fashioned out of Pete Collins‘ New Miami Times articles. They locked their sights on three misguided, morally deficient individuals and found a way to caricature them so they would earn a modicum of sympathy alongside the buckets of revulsion and desire for justice. The victims aren’t the nicest bunch of people either, but they’re still the ones hurt and killed in Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), Paul Doyle (Johnson), and Adrian Doorbal’s (Anthony Mackie) wake. We never lose sight of right or wrong and while we laugh at the comedy of errors on display always know how it all must end.
Centered around Lugo—the ringleader—we watch how a self-help seminar from a lunatic named Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong) hijacks the doer attitude this personal trainer has always held sacred from his stint in jail after a Ponzi scheme gone wrong and his rebirth at John Mese’s (Rob Corddry) Sun Gym. Finally a success, the Miami Beach lifestyle still proves too expensive and the clientele he works out too obnoxiously sleazy. So many ideas start swimming around in his head to rectify his status until an ill-fated kidnapping plot rises to the top. Enlisting two co-workers and friends strapped for cash themselves, his trio is barely able to capture sandwich king Victor Kershaw (a brilliantly over-the-top Tony Shalhoub) before somehow breaking him into signing away every asset he owns.
A motley crew, the demons in their closets help make the whole ordeal that much better. Doorbal is an avid steroid user who lost the use of his penis and therefore must earn the money necessary to fix his business and treat new girlfriend Robin (Rebel Wilson) right. And Doyle is a semi-Born Again Christian newly sober from alcohol and cocaine trying to live righteously in Jesus’ shadow who truthfully just loves the notion that Danny and Adrian want to be his friends. Each possesses a simple, straightforward goal and eventually loses his soul in the chaos surrounding its execution. Lugo takes the power trip way too far, Doorbal unearths a violent mean streak and joy in causing pain, and Doyle gets reacquainted with his inability to just say no to peer pressure.
Bay allows his comically talented cast to run free and really add to the impossibly idiotic situations they find themselves engaged. From using a porn shop warehouse as their torture den to grilling severed hands on a barbecue grill for the whole neighborhood to see to botching up the kidnapping so badly that they could have gotten away with everything if not for the unavoidable paranoia-infused backslides, these guys couldn’t have screwed up more if they tried. Wahlberg is pitch-perfect as the doofy brains of the bunch being brought down by imbeciles stupider than he, Johnson hilarious as the morally torn muscle prone to tears and inappropriate kindness, and Mackie an awkward schizophrenic mix of steroid-fueled rage and incalculable warmth for those he holds close.
We’re given a window into each character’s soul as the film propels itself forward through a series of voiceover narrations that change the viewpoint of the proceedings and delve deeper into their mental states. It’s a fun gimmick that lends itself well to its newspaper article origins as we learn what is going through their minds while they all descend further into hell. Flashbacks crop up to better place motivations as present-day actions are shown in hyper-cut sequences to help us remember who is at the helm. But while Bay began in smaller, more character-driven films like Bad Boys, nothing he’s done has ever been this personal in scope to really let his actors shine above plot. Whether Lugo and company succeeds or not doesn’t matter. They’re just a hoot to watch.
With a couple flourishes on behalf of Bay and his team cutting together a 360-degree spin of action inside Doorbal’s home once violence finally consumes them—making the camera peer through holes in doors and walls to seamlessly float into adjacent rooms—and freeze-framing moments with funny captions, there is definitely something at play making you rethink any ill-will you’ve had towards this director of destruction. The man has talent and if given the right project with the right pieces can entertain without CGI robot aliens or explosions everywhere we turn. We laugh at Michael Bay films ironically most of the time so it’s refreshing to see him laugh along with us. Back for more Transformers next, however, hopefully we won’t have to wait so long before he returns to basics again.
 Photo credit: Jaimie Trueblood (Left to right) Dwayne Johnson as Paul Doyle, Anthony Mackie as Adrian Doorbal and Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo in PAIN AND GAIN, directed by Michael Bay from Paramount Pictures. (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: Jaimie Trueblood (Left to right) Dwayne Johnson as Paul Doyle, Tony Shalhoub as Victor Kershaw and Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo in PAIN AND GAIN, directed by Michael Bay from Paramount Pictures. (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Ken Jeong as Jonny Wu in PAIN AND GAIN, directed by Michael Bay from Paramount Pictures. (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.