The Reel: ‘Pain & Gain’ more than meets the eye

Ben Conniff

What would you consider to be the “American dream?”

It’s tough to put a finger or, in the case of Miami bodybuilder Paul Doyle, a toe on it. But for three dimwit “juiceheads,” the dream consists of big houses, fancy cars, beautiful women and doing just about anything in order to live said dream.

Witness the case of gym rats Daniel Lugo, Adrian Doorbal, and Paul Doyle in “Pain & Gain,” a true-life caper of three Miami bodybuilders working together to violently extort a multimillionaire in order to live lives of luxury.

As it turns out, Michael Bay (“Transformers”) is the perfect director for a movie as wildly chaotic as “Pain & Gain.” Miami is the perfect backdrop, as it’s flashy, sexy and dark enough to keep the appalling true events believable. Scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely also make this story consistently engrossing by exposing the scathing, dark humor that lies within the events.

As for the cast, let’s face it. No movie about dimwit, bodybuilding criminals is complete without Dwayne Johnson. As the God-fearing drug addict Paul Doyle in “Pain & Gain,” Johnson maintains a sensitive, thought-provoking turn that’s probably my favorite from him so far.

Mark Wahlberg again shows that he can make the most out of any material he’s given. As the bodybuilder and bumbling criminal mastermind Danny Lugo, Wahlberg is gleefully excessive, even if his character’s increasingly poor decisions effectively put the “pain” in “Pain & Gain.”

As for Sun Gym newbie Adrian Doorbal, Anthony Mackie gets to flex more than his biceps. Turns out, the dramatic “Hurt Locker” star has some hysterical comedic muscle that’s most effectively seen when dealing with the emasculating side effects of steroid use. Mackie also shines in his scenes with the incomparable Rebel Wilson (“Pitch Perfect”) as his muse.

Rounding out the supporting cast are Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris and Rob Corddry. Shalhoub plays Victor Kershaw, the smarmy deli sandwich and drug kingpin who lives that “American dream” that Lugo and the guys are after. Ed Harris makes a strong turn as Ed DuBois, the retired private investigator who Kershaw hires after the police fail to pursue his case against Lugo. Rob Corddry also stars as John Mese, the manager of the gym that Lugo and Doorbal work at. All three are perfectly cast, and never feel squandered.

At first viewing, I didn’t really notice anything inherently wrong with “Pain & Gain.” If there’s anything truly negative to say, it’d be that it hurts to watch the protagonists essentially dig their own graves for two hours. After about 60 to 90 minutes and a seemingly equal amount of boneheaded decisions, you can’t help but think to yourself, “How stupid can these guys honestly be?” 

There are also some issues with product placement that come off as inconsistent for the mid-90s setting. For example, I’m pretty sure that there were no 12-taco party boxes from Taco Bell or Xbox 360 controllers laying around back in 1995. However, these are minor, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em errors that don’t detract from the film’s overall impact.

Even though the actions of the main characters prove to be more of a “pain” in the end, there’s far more to be “gained” in what I would call director Michael Bay’s finest film yet. With a strong cast, engrossing story, dark sense of humor, and stylish setting, “Pain & Gain” shows that Bay doesn’t need talking robots or decimated cityscapes to make an enthralling movie. The right motivation and an “American dream” will do just fine.