Quirky ‘Pain & Gain’ goes on a steroid-fueled crime spree
BY RICHARD ROEPER SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST April 25, 2013 10:30AM
Dwayne Johnson (from left)as Paul Doyle, Tony Shalhoub as Victor Kershaw and Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo in "Pain & Gain," directed by Michael Bay from Paramount Pictures.
‘PAIN & GAIN’ ★★★
Daniel Lugo Mark Wahlberg
Paul Doyle Dwayne Johnson
Adrian Doorbal Anthony Mackie
Victor Kershaw Tony Shalhoub
Ed Du Bois Ed Harris
Johnny Wu Ken Jeong
Paramount presents a film directed by Michael Bay. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Running time: 130 minutes. Rated R (for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use). Opening Friday at local theaters.
Updated: May 28, 2013 6:38PM
So often when a real-life news story takes dramatic twists and turns, we media types can’t resist saying, “If a Hollywood script writer dreamed up this scenario, it would be rejected for being just too outrageous.”
Considering the movies we’ve seen featuring talking animals, flying superheroes and big city residents who never have trouble finding a parking place, the cliché doesn’t really hold up, because clearly there’s NO scenario too outrageous for Hollywood.
That said, some “based on true events” movies simply wouldn’t work as well if we weren’t aware of the origin story. How much more entertaining is “Catch Me If You Can” because we know Frank Abagnale really pulled off most of the cons depicted in the movie? Quibbles about dramatic license aside, films such as “GoodFellas” and “Argo” resonate in part because we’re thinking, “Wow. A lot of this stuff really happened.”
So it goes with “Pain & Gain,” which isn’t in the same league as the aforementioned films, but still benefits from us knowing this is the mostly true story of three idiot bodybuilders who went on a steroid-fueled, tragicomic crime spree in south Florida in the 1990s. There’s even a moment when Michael Bay (“Armageddon,” “Transformers”), a director who almost never has the word “deft” attached to his brand name, executes a perfectly timed reminder we’re watching a movie based on a true story, outlandish developments notwithstanding.
Filled with hard-R, turn-your-head-away violence, “Pain & Gain” begins at the end, with Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) trying to elude the SWAT team that has descended upon the fitness center where Lugo trained clients and worked on his own inflated physique. We then flash back to the recent past, with Lugo feeling increasingly frustrated at his lack of career progress and increasingly resentful of a wealthy client named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a crass and oily jerk who constantly brags about his money and his house and his boat and his cars.
Lugo’s one of those guys who’s not quite smart enough to realize how dumb he is. Lugo, pumped up on a cocktail of steroids, bodybuilding, ambition and the motivational slogans of a low-rent inspirational speaker (the somewhat one-note but still hilarious Ken Jeong), hatches a plan to kidnap Kershaw and separate him from everything he owns. Why? Because Kershaw doesn’t work hard enough in the gym, and he’s a scumbag in general.
Lugo’s partners in crime: Adrian (Anthony Mackie), who has a thing for ladies of a certain size and has taken so many steroids his manhood is literally disappearing, and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), an amazing physical specimen who’s fresh out of prison and newly committed to the Lord. These two mopes are so dim they make Lugo seem like a diabolical genius.
From the kidnapping to murder attempts to the ways in which Lugo and his buddies spend their ill-gotten gains, everything they do is either badly bungled or horribly bungled. Blood is spilled, a chainsaw malfunctions, a toe is shot off, hands are severed, a car runs over a man’s head — and in a scene that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, Bay elects to show us the graphic result of a trip to the bathroom gone horribly wrong.
There are some moments of screenplay zip, as when Lugo becomes the king of his driveway basketball games, mostly because he’s playing against 12-year-olds. (When one kid shoots him a look, Lugo says, “I’ve seen the way your mom eyeballs me. I can be your stepdad in a week.”)
At times, Bay seems to be mocking his own directorial style, e.g., when a slow-motion walk from an explosion has a funny payoff. As is the case with nearly all of Bay’s films, “Pain & Gain” has a sharp, compelling, brightly colored look that you know will work just as well on a portable device as it does on the big screen.
As we’d expect, Wahlberg, Mackie and Shalhoub are excellent — and Johnson keeps pace, getting some of the movie’s biggest laughs as he veers between trying to walk the righteous path and snorting cocaine off the backside of a beautiful woman. Ed Harris, as an out-of-retirement private investigator, serves as a sober reminder this comically inept trio committed a series of violent crimes. (Two of the inspirations for fictional characters in “Pain & Gain” sit on Death Row in Florida.)
Some of the real-life victims of Lugo and his sidekicks are upset Hollywood would make a mostly comedic movie about events that brought them much pain and suffering. One cannot blame them.
I don’t know if this will provide them any solace. Even though “Pain & Gain” does indeed mine laughs from some very violent acts, there is nothing in this movie that glamorizes those three meatheads. Kudos to Bay and his screenwriters for making sure we’re laughing at them, not with them.