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Film Review: ‘Pain & Gain’

Michael Bay directs this pulverizing steroidal farce based on a bizarre-but-true story

The large-scale destructiveness he has previously wreaked upon public and private property (including entire cities), Michael Bay visits on the human body in “Pain & Gain,” a pulverizing steroidal farce based on a bizarre-but-true kidnapping-and-murder case. Suggesting “Fargo” by way of the Three Stooges, Bay’s latest certainly proves that the “Transformers” auteur does have something more than jacked-up robots on his mind: specifically, jacked-up muscle men who will stop at nothing to achieve their deeply twisted notion of the American dream. With a very fine ensemble cast recruited to play an array of overtly despicable characters, this unapologetically vulgar, sometimes quite funny, often stomach-churning bacchanal will surely prove too extreme for great swathes of the multiplex crowd. But the marquee value of topliners Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson, plus the pic’s reportedly modest $25 million pricetag, spells more gain than pain for Paramount’s box office pecs.

Given that every Bay film is something of a stamina test, marked by passages of intense exhilaration and paralyzing fatigue, with “Pain & Gain” the director may have lucked into the most fitting subject matter of his career: the world of obsessive bodybuilders and the trainers who push them beyond the brink of exhaustion. Adapted by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (“Captain America: The First Avenger,” the “Narnia” trilogy) from a series of articles originally published in the Miami New Times by Pete Collins, the film tells of one such muscle mecca, Miami’s Sun Gym, where staff and clientele include a liberal mixture of strippers, ex-cons and small-time scam artists.

One such hustler is Sun Gym manager Danny Lugo (Wahlberg) who, in the fall of 1994, decides to abduct one of his clients, wealthy Colombian-American businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) — and defraud him of his net worth.

To aid in the scheme, Lugo recruits two accomplices: personal trainer Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and former Attica inmate Paul (Johnson), a recovering alcoholic and junkie who found Jesus during his last stint in the slammer. After a couple of near-misses (in real life, there were several more), the trio — decked out in ridiculous Halloween costumes — succeed in nabbing their mark, who they sequester in an abandoned dry-cleaning plant and, over the next 30 days, force to sign over all of his worldly assets, including cars, a local deli franchise and a gaudy McMansion in a posh gated community.

In Collins’ reporting, the story of the Sun Gym gang reads like an inordinately malicious bid for the good life by a bunch of overcompensating he-men whose musculature vastly outpaced their intellect — their staggering incompetence rivaled only by that of the Miami-Dade Police, who, when Kershaw (in reality, Marc Schiller) miraculously survived to tell his tale, initially refused to believe him.

While sticking largely to the facts, Bay and the writers are clearly aiming for something bigger: a commentary on American self-entitlement and, to an extent, the very sort of ra-ra, macho posturing Bay has proffered without irony in many previous films. In contrast to the unconscionable thug he seems to be on the page, the movie’s Lugo is more of a harebrained dreamer who sees himself as one of life’s “doers,” high on self-help mantras and a sense of his own inviolability. Wahlberg’s deft performance, which plays on his innate likability to conceal his character’s ultimate menace (a side of the actor little seen onscreen since his fine turn as the psycho boyfriend in James Foley’s “Fear”), is one of the film’s (few) unqualified pleasures. But the movie’s cynical subtext, and whatever Bay is ultimately hoping to say with it, remain mostly undeveloped.

To its credit, “Pain & Gain” never succumbs to glamorizing its characters or their crimes, keeping things rooted in a constant, grim tension. For all its absurdist accents, the long middle section, in which Kershaw is beaten and bludgeoned by means that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in “Zero Dark Thirty,” is punishing to behold and dilutes much of the frantic energy the movie has built up during its opening act. And at 129 minutes, there’s much more to come, including severed digits, penile injections, a spinning weight plate to the neck and, in one unforgettable extreme-close-up, a cargo van’s rear tire backing up over a human face. At his best, particularly in the two “Bad Boys” movies, Bay can be a master of exuberant chaos, but here the violence mostly lands with a sickening thud, which is fitting, one supposes, but also ultimately numbing.

For better or worse — arguably both — Bay remains one of the most distinctive visual stylists at work in American movies today, and “Pain & Gain” is nothing if not an orgy of swooshing, swooping movements, super slo-mo, blazing pastels (for the exteriors) and glowing neon (for the interiors), all captured on an array of pro and prosumer cameras, both film and digital, that give the movie a luxurious array of visual textures. Bay, who previously shot Miami very well in his two “Bad Boys” movies, here turns it into a shimmering oasis of sin. One image, glimpsed late in the film, even feels like its maker’s entire career condensed into a single shot: wads of $100 bills laid out on a UV tanning bed.

The pic’s home stretch gets a welcome boost from veteran Bay player Ed Harris as the seasoned private eye who ended up blowing the lid off the Sun Gym case. He’s only around for a few scenes, but he slips into them with such masterly ease that the character seems fuller and richer than many with double the screen time. Women, unsurprisingly, are mostly expendable here, reduced to sex objects and convenient surfaces for snorting coke, though the resourceful Rebel Wilson manages to steal a few scenes as Adrian’s clueless nurse girlfriend.

Pain & Gain

Reviewed at AMC Loews 34th St., New York, April 18, 2013. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 129 MIN.

A Paramount release of a De Line Pictures production. Produced by Donald De Line, Michael Bay, Ian Bryce. Executive producers, Matthew Cohan, Wendy Japhet. Co-producer, Michael Kase.

Directed by Michael Bay. Screenplay, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, based on the magazine articles by Pete Collins. Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen, HD/35mm), Ben Seresin; editors, Thomas A. Muldoon, Joel Negron; music, Steve Jablonsky; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; art director, Sebastian Schroeder; set decorator, Jay Hart; costume designer, Deborah L. Scott; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), David Husby; supervising sound editors/sound designers, Ethan Van Der Ryn, Erik Aadahl; re-recording mixers, Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell, Jeffrey J. Haboush; visual effects supervisor, Pablo Helman; visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic, Base FX; special makeup effects, KNB EFX Group, Inc.; stunt coordinators, Troy Robinson, Ken Bates; assistant director, Chris Castaldi; casting, Denise Chamian.

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Bar Paly, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Michael Rispoli, Keili Lefkovitz.

Film Review: 'Pain & Gain'

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