The trailer for Pain & Gain looked like my kind of movie, just the type of exciting, cool flick that cinephiles can expect this time of year as we gear up for the action-packed summer blockbusters. I’m a fan of Mark Wahlberg, who is no stranger to playing the badass antihero (see The Departed and Contraband), and I liked the premise. It promised to tell the true-life tale of an ambitious young bodybuilder who went from rags to riches, breaking a few laws along the way. I was entertained at various times throughout the movie, but by the time the credits rolled I had an underwhelmed feeling.
Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a convicted murderer who took the lives of two innocent people in 1995 during a botched robbery. The movie opens by introducing us to Lugo, an ambitious meathead with a voracious appetite for his version of the American Dream. Lugo was inspired by the fictional exploits of the likes of Tony Montana and Michael Corleone, and (stupidly) aspired to be like them. One would think that Scarface in particular would be a cautionary tale, considering that he ended up laying dead in a fountain looking like a piece of Swiss cheese – but don’t tell that to Daniel Lugo.
Lugo worked at a Florida gym, where he perfected his body and his designs on untold riches. Accompanying him was friend Adrian (Anthony Mackie, Gangster Squad), a fellow bodybuilder with similar ambitions of greatness. Eventually Lugo hatches a plan to kidnap and extort Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, Hemingway & Gellhorn), a wealthy client for whom he acts as personal trainer. Kershaw has several assets that Lugo can liquidate if he compels Victor to turn them over. Daniel and Adrian recruit a third man for their plot, a convict named Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) who has served time in federal prison. Doyle is a humorously devout Christian who found Jesus in jail. Perversely ironic, he has no problem jibing his Christian ideals with a criminal lifestyle. Once the three stooges have the plan in motion, they bungle their way through, eventually getting their hands on millions of dollars. Eventually things begin to go south with Kershaw and the gang decides they need to do another job. Their greed eventually gets the best of them, leading them to the robbery and murder of a wealthy couple that belonged to their gym.
The movie began to lose me about a third of the way through, when I couldn’t tell if it was taking itself seriously or not. There were several implausible scenes, including one where Kershaw seems to be invincible. I did research after the fact, and it turns out that these farfetched things actually happened. I can’t fault director Michael Bay (Transformers) for telling it like it is, but I can fault him for the way he chose to depict these real-life events. The three principal characters were portrayed as funny and likeable, and so I liked them. But by the time the movie concludes, the viewer realizes that these funny guys did a horrible thing. Because they were depicted so comically initially, I’m not sure that the severity of their actions adequately resonated with viewers. I enjoyed the laughs, and Wahlberg was his usual cool, badass self – but I was left with too many conflicting elements, from an emotional perspective. I don’t attribute this to any particular depth of storytelling, but rather to a muddled approach by director Michael Bay.
This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.