Pain & Gain has been a titillating prospect since the early days of production because it finally seemed like Michael Bay was taking a break from fannying about with robot testicles and taking advantage of desperate young actresses to have a bit of fun. And what could be more fun than watching a trio of bodybuilders with more mental acuity in their glutes than in their skull become criminals? Not at all, actually.
The trio are led by Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg); a former convict who believes in the American Dream almost as much as he believes in fitness. After becoming a personal trainer for a rich client he forgoes the whole "work hard" thing and decides to get someone else's riches via kidnapping, extortion, torture and murder. His fellow goons are a recently released, cocaine-addicted, born again christian (Johnson) and a fellow trainer whose steroid habit has rendered him impotent (Mackie). Shockingly, they don't come up with the most air-tight of plans.
Bay gets deservedly hammered all the time and it must be said that although Pain & Gain is extremely self-aware, it doesn't necessarily make it OK. From the outset the entire film comes off as a parody and they delight in reminding us that this is a true story, but by doing so it squelches the humour and makes it all rather uncomfortable. A man so idiotic that he'd barbecue his victims severed hands out in clear view of potential witnesses is funny, but knowing that a pair of unlikeable but still innocent victims' remains were actually treated this way is not.
Much has been written about the so-called true story from which this is based and of course changes have been made for entertainment purposes, but I just didn't guffaw as much as everyone else at my screening and have no idea why it's been greeted with such glee. On the plus side, it is a much more interesting look at the dark pursuit of the American Dream than, say, Spring Breakers or The Bling Ring, and while none of them explicitly say anything about American culture, Pain & Gain doesn't attempt to present its characters in a sympathetic light. No, they're pricks, and their actions aren't OK just because their victims are also pricks.
Much praise should be given to Mark Wahlberg who drops more than a few memorable lines in a hysterical manner and winds up his own image by parading around in a pair of Calvin Klein's, but Dwayne Johnson is the only reason to see this. How many other actors could go from beating up a priest to running from the feds with green pain on his face to singing Amazing Grace in one film and do it so wonderfully? No one.