Equipped with a $25-million budget that likely would have only covered the catering costs on 2011's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon
," Michael Bay has helmed his most confident, grown-up feature, to date, with grisly true-life crime satire "Pain & Gain." Maybe the lower budget helped to spark the typically bombastic, technically haywire director's spirit and ambition. Maybe screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger
") wrote such a flashy-good script that no one could really screw it up. Or maybe, just maybe, Bay's underlying talents have nothing to do with CGI effects, after all. Whatever the case, the director's sizable departure from what is usually expected of him is the wisest creative decision of his career, proof that when he puts his mind to it and chooses quality over a massive paycheck, it just might pay off in an altogether more gratifying way.
The year is 1995, and white-collar ex-con Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) has gotten a job as a fitness coordinator and personal trainer at Miami's Sun Gym. Obsessed with achieving a sort of physical perfection through weight-lifting, Daniel quickly rises in the ranks while managing to triple membership in no time at all. Daniel may look good, but what he can't do is translate that into financial wealtha frustrating sticking point that leads him to plot with co-worker Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) the kidnapping and extortion of crooked millionaire customer Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Eventually pulling a third accomplice into the fold, deeply religious loose cannon, former drug addict, and one-time Attica prisoner Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), Daniel believes their plan is foolproof until a blindfolded Victor figures out who his kidnapper is. With no choice now but to do away with the human evidence, abduction turns to pre-meditated attempted murder. Just as they think they've gotten away with it and start living the high life, irresponsibility and inevitable greed lead them to set their sights on another rich victim, Frank Grin (Michael Rispoli). To say that things careen wildly out of control from there would be an understatement.
Though a few names have been changed and the occasional fact has been twisted, "Pain & Gain" sticks pretty closely to the true events it is based upon, one of those stranger-than-fiction cases that few people would believe if it hadn't actually happened. Narrated by a revolving-door of characters with altering points-of-view, the film is at once instantly enthralling and surprisingly savvy as it embroils the viewer into a convoluted extortion ring lead by a trio of exceedingly dumbbell-brained bodybuilders. Knowing little about the case walking in or not, it scarcely matters; either way, the story alternately fascinates, bewilders and shocks as it leads into enormously grim and grotesque territory in which there can only be one or two possible conclusions (hint: neither of these involve getting away scot-free and living a full life of money and privilege). With lead players Daniel, Adrian and Paul also posing as the immoral, self-involved, likely psychotic antagonists, director Michael Bay's aim is not to get you to like them, but to ridicule how downright asinine their crimes and actions became as they made one terrible decision after the next.
Mark Wahlberg (2013's "Broken City
") always seems to play characters who are all close cousins with each other, sharing pretty much the same persona and DNA beyond the obvious outer similarities. His work as Daniel Lugo isn't a 180-degree turnaround, but it is a promising start for a performer who needs to stretch his wings beyond his comfort zone. His motives are as dirty as they come, but his Daniel might have had a fighting chance if he didn't recruit two idiotsone game but messy, the other naïve and almost childlike in his constant attempt to make good even as he perpetually screwed up. The former is Adrian Doorbal, portrayed by Anthony Mackie (2013's "Gangster Squad
") as a guy whose steroid use has led to a bout of erectile dysfunction, while the latter, Paul Doyle, is vividly embodied by Dwayne Johnson (2013's "Snitch
") as a God-fearing simpleton constantly overcome by his vices. When Paul announces that he's not fit for murder, he's telling the truth; what he's not above, it seems, is barbecuing chopped-off hands to get rid of two corpses' fingerprints.
Supporting roles are written with a keen eye for observation and layers where one would least expect them, while the character actors who have been cast to fill them out are just as impressive. Tony Shalhoub (2010's "How Do You Know
") receives his juiciest part in years as Victor Kershaw, the crews' first victim. Shalhoub is at his oily best getting into Kershaw's skin, an entrepreneur who has gotten rich by cheating the system and being a jackass in the process; as scummy as he is, the moment he is kidnapped and signs his own fate, he becomes an empathetic figure with an understandably vulnerable side. As Ed Du Bois, the retired private detective who looks into the case when the police prove unreliable, Ed Harris (2012's "Man on a Ledge
") makes an enduring mark despite coming into the proceedings relatively late; his is one of the few characters who could be described as (1) likable, and (2) working with more than half a brain. The others, as it were, belong to Emily Rutherfurd (2005's "Elizabethtown
"), an ingratiating spitfire as Ed's wife, Carolyn, and scene-stealer Rebel Wilson (2012's "Pitch Perfect
"), as Adrian's taken-advantage-of newlywed wife Robin.
"Some people just don't know a good thing when it's staring them in the face," Carolyn says to Ed at the end of "Pain & Gain" as they watch the sun set over the exotic Miami skyline. Though the picture, up to this point, has wavered between amusingly ridiculing its criminal characters and treating the unspeakable situations with a certain level of gravity, it is this one line from Carolyn that poignantly speaks volumes. There is beauty in life that has nothing to do with how affluent and wealthy a person is, and these ignorant guysDaniel, Adrian, and Paulchose to not only ruin their own futures, but cruelly snuff out the lives of several innocent victims, for nothing more than the chance to live in a big house. Wise and increasingly weary, "Pain & Gain" understands what a waste this was all too well, the American Dream not just left unfulfilled, but flushed straight down the toilet.