I think Michael Bay must have been watching a lot of Coen brothers films when he decided to make Pain & Gain. The darkly comic plot about a bunch of numbskull bodybuilders who think they can cheat their way to a life of luxury by kidnapping a rich gym member and extorting money from him could be lifted straight out of one of Joel and Ethan’s screenplays. Heck, there’s even a severed toe (see The Big Lebowski). The story in fact takes its inspiration from a real-life crime spate in mid-90s Florida - though, as in most true crime movies, names have been changed and liberties taken for the sake of entertainment.
Mark Wahlberg is Daniel Lugo, a personal trainer in a Miami gym who is sick of cow-towing to rich clients. When the highly affluent and deeply unpleasant fast food chain owner Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) enrols at the gym, Daniel hatches a plan to kidnap Victor and steal his money, with a little help from his workout buddies, the buff but impotent Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and naïve ex-con Paul (Dwayne Johnson). “I’ve watched a lot of movies, I know what I’m doing,” says Daniel as they make their way to the heist. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it happens, pretty much everything, leaving Daniel, his side-kicks and the audience to look on in horror as events take an increasingly violent and grisly turn.
Now, in a Coen Brothers film, this would be the perfect platform for the sort of gallows humour we’ve come to know and love in films like Fargo, No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading (also, notably, set in a gym). But this is a Michael Bay film, and anyone who has sampled even a small portion of the director’s past work will know what that means: macho men performing macho deeds; vacuous, chesty women in skimpy outfits, and a fair amount of things smashing into other things (fists into faces, cars into walls, really heavy weights onto people’s heads etc.) - all accompanied by a blaring soundtrack, which in this instance happens to be Coolio’s 'Gangsta’s Paradise'. Any scope for nuance and subtlety gets pounded into oblivion pretty fast, making the juxtaposition between hilarity and horror seem a bit tasteless, especially when you take into account the fact that these events supposedly happened in real life.
To be fair to Bay, Pain & Gain is certainly more thought-provoking and restrained than, say, his Transformers movies. He even has a go at creating subtext, albeit by framing a shot of the Stars & Stripes through the barbed wire of a prison fence and getting his money-grabbing characters to repeat the words ‘American Dream’ again and again and again. But it’s the casting that ultimately saves the day. Wahlberg and Mackie give it their all to make their despicable characters if not likeable, then definitely compelling, while Dwayne Johnson’s unquestionable charisma radiates through even the most tawdry of scenes.