Pain & Gain is an odd and crazy film, and for many reasons; first of them being that it’s a black comedy helmed by infamous action blockbuster director Michael Bay. The rest we’ll get into with this review. The movie is based off of the 1999 Miami New Times articles written by Pete Collins. For those who haven’t heard about this unbelievable true story, here is the breakdown: back in the early-mid 90’s, a group of numbskull body-builders from Sun Gym in Miami, Florida became the perpetrators in cases of extortion, theft, murder…the lot! It sounds grim – and it is – but has Bay et al managed to squeeze some humour out of this otherwise gruesome real-life tale? (and should he have?)…
It’s June 17th, 1995 and Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is on the run from the Miami-Dade County police, who have converged on his location, interrupting his morning inverted sit-ups session hanging off the Sun Gym billboard. But how exactly did we get here? Years prior, Lugo was hired by Sun Gym owner John Mese (Rob Corddry) after he promised to triple membership within three months. Mese looked past the released convict’s jail time in hiring him, and within 3 weeks, Lugo surpassed that goal. Life is fine, but Lugo wants more.
When a rich new client named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) walks in and shares his story with personal trainer Lugo, the latter gets jealous and full of contempt for the man, whom he sees as a crook who unjustly became a millionaire and certainly didn’t deserve it more than him. Confiding in his friend and fellow trainer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), Lugo feels like he is taking a hold of his life and fulfilling his full potential. He decides to attend a seminar by the charismatic Jonny Wu, who motivates and convinces Lugo that he is a “doer”, not a “don’ter”. This new found drive leads Lugo to hatch a plan to kidnap Kershaw and extort from him all of his assets.
First, he recruits Doorbal, and then a second accomplice by the name of Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a cocaine-addicted convict who had turned to religion and only recently began working out at Sun Gym. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is hilarious in this role; his performance ensured that Doyle is the most charming of the three, who shows a constant level of innocent naivety and at least some moral fibre. In fact, the entire cast does an amazing job, with Tony Shalhoub being the other stand out as a “difficult victim” and a hard man to get behind. Moving on, the three blockheads attempt to execute Lugo’s “master plan” for kidnapping Kershaw, but of course things don’t go as hoped.
Eventually, they do succeed. Now, for the sake of those who haven’t read the original articles (basically an extensive, 3-part essay), which would be the majority of you, I will refrain from any further hard spoilers. The only thing I must reference is the fact that Kershaw wasn’t their only victim. Taking that into consideration for the plot of a film, the introduction of new characters mid-way through the film was expected, but is usually frowned upon in the medium for its potential to break pacing and change focus. Here, the pace is consistent and non-stop, so it isn’t as detrimental, especially because the Kershaw story doesn’t end before the next victim’s begins, so there is a through-line and overarching conclusion.
More secondary characters are introduced along the way, including Doorbal’s love interest and ‘penis doctor’ Robin Peck (Rebel Wilson), a clueless stripper named Sorina Luminita (Bar Paly) who joins the Sun Gym Gang believing she is aiding the F.B.I., and retired detective Ed Du Bois, III (Ed Harris), who is influenced to investigate the group. There has been backlash that the filmmakers have turned these killers into sympathetic figures; giving Doorbal erectile dysfunction being a key example. But they all do despicable things, and if your sympathy for them outweighs your disgust, then you have the problem. Doyle does have some redeeming qualities, and there’s a reason his real-life counterpart is still alive today.
That brings up the fact that the filmmakers protected the names of the men and women played in the film who survived the ordeal, although the proper details are not hard to come by. It’s actually crazy how accurate some of the actions the Sun Gym Gang take are to real life (a certain use of horse tranquillizer and a method for removing fingerprints comes to mind), with a late freeze-frame reminding us “this is still a true story”. That being said, numerous details were changed or completely fabricated for the purpose of providing a more entertaining film, although I’m not sure it wasn’t already absurd enough.
There is a definite clash of tones, but it isn’t as much an issue as I expected it to be. What they did was reprehensible, but we’ve been laughing at black comedies for decades. The only difference here is this was real life, and that’s a big one. For those families affected by the criminal acts of these men, the film is understandably an unwanted reminder, and in their minds, a travesty. But for those who are disassociated from the real-life events, they can theoretically laugh at this because the bad guys get their comeuppance (not a real spoiler, you know no one could succeed doing this)…they are not protagonists like in the traditional sense. It’s strange, and one of very few films where I can understand why critics would absolutely deride it, but not me.
The film’s setting of Miami-Dade County, Florida, screams its identity and individual culture loudly. The coastline city is an instantly recognisable place, and here it is almost personified as another character. The pastel colours, the constant shine of the Sun’s bright, beating rays, the retiree beach-bum lifestyle; it all permeates through the film. Michael Bay and his cinematographer did an amazing job of capturing the vibe and essence of Miami.
In terms of directing, the Michael Bay stamp is clearly discernible. The camera work and angles, part of his trademark style, are utilised here in a much more noticeable fashion, if only because low angle tracking shots and the like are far from commonplace in the comedy genre. But somehow, it works and aids in creating a distinctly, stylistically unique entry in the comedy genre. The freeze-frames could be looked at as being overused, but did fit in perfectly as a visual motif.
The somewhat eclectic soundtrack by Steve Jablonsky is quite different to what you’d expect from the Michael Bay collaborator (having previously worked on The Island and the Transformers trilogy). There are moments of airy melancholy in the tracks that play on Lugo’s starring scenes, which perfectly encapsulate his and the gang’s sad, deluded sense of hope for the materialisation of the American dream. There’s also a track that reminds of Nine Inch Nails – and the Resident Evil film’s main theme personally – with an industrial element to its sound.
Much of the score is higher octane, with moody synths and electronica dominating the soundscape, along with some overdriven guitar and pounding drums. There are a few licensed tracks from the 90’s featured in the film as well. The only let down audio-wise was the actual sound-editing of a couple scenes. There was an instance where the character from the previous scene finished his sentence during the transition to the next scene set in a completely different location and time. This “technique” isn’t unheard of, but it was especially glaring here.
Even writing this now, I’m still slightly unsure how I feel about this divisive film. Not often does a film breed such conflicted feelings, and they all stem from an innate moral compass that most of us have. Yes, it’s not necessarily something that should be laughed at, but by God is it ludicrous, ridiculous – and every other synonym – that it just becomes comical on its own merit. Will you feel uneasy or guilty for liking it? You probably should…but there’s no doubt that it is a memorable motion picture experience, unconventional and amoral as it may be. Luckily, I like unconventional, and maybe upon further reflection my opinion will change (for better or for worse), but I have to admit that Pain & Gain thoroughly entertained me.
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