Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) believes in America. A bodybuilder living in Miami, Lugo keeps a simple faith in the American dream, that through hard work and determination he can accomplish anything. But despite his constant physical training and his devotion to a self-improvement program he still finds himself stuck in a rathole apartment with a low-paying job at Sun Gym, training rich jerks who are unappreciative of what they have. For Lugo, something’s wrong, and it’s time he fixed it. In his mind, he is a “doer,” and will do whatever it takes to fulfill his desires – including kidnapping, torturing and murdering his wealthy client Victor Kreshaw (Tony Shalhoub).
To carry out his schemes Lugo enlists the help of his best friend Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and former convict Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and it’s here that Pain & Gain is at its best and funniest, the chemistry between the three keeping the film running. Wahlberg, as mastermind Lugo, is naturally the standout of the film, a mix of smooth-talking salesman, low cunning, and amoral ruthlessness. In Wahlberg’s hands, Lugo isn’t quite smart enough to pull off his crimes but charming and driven enough to fool himself and his friends into thinking he can. The Rock likewise brings a dumb-lug sort of humor to Paul Doyle, the born-again Christian who reluctantly goes along with the zaniness, alternating between wide-eyed naivete and over-the-top violent hamming. Even Mackie manages some laughs, though as the clichéd fast-talking booty-obsessed black best friend his character is the least interesting of the three. The rest of the supporting cast is serviceable if stereotypical; Tony Shalhoub as the rich jerkass Victor Kreshaw, Ed Harris as the hardboiled PI Kreshaw hires to track down his torturers after the police fail him, and Michael Rispoli as sleazy porn producer Frank Grin. The biggest blunder casting wise is Bar Paly as Lugo and Doyle’s stripper girlfriend. This may be more a fault of the script than the actress, since the character is written as a vapid, eye-candy-providing ditz, but Paly’s simpering cutesiness grates.
On a technical level Bay succeeds at making Pain & Gain a much different viewing experience from his over-the-top action films. Granted, some of his tics do show up. Almost all the women have model-perfect bodies, and almost none of them wear more than a tight t-shirt and short shorts. Stereotypes pop up as comedy bits, whether it’s Ken Jeong as a self-help guru playing his usual over-the-top ca-ray-zee Asian schtick or Rebel Wilson as the goofy fat chick. And Bay manages to blow up one car, complete with the three leads walking away in slow motion. But shots last longer than five seconds, (including one impressive long take that manages to rachet up the tension between Lugo and a potential victim), colors other than blue and orange appear, and when the American flag pops up, it actually makes some thematic sense.
Yes, themes do appear. Lugo’s smooth-talking artist covers up a bitter resentment towards others having what he doesn’t but feels he deserves, a resentment at the rich and powerful for believing they’re “better” than him because of their privilege. This resentment powers the plot, motivating both his choice of victims and his methods of torturing them – targeting rich and powerful men and stripping them of their money, home, family and every other trapping of success. Lugo’s own idea of success is surprisingly conservative – upon the success of his heist he eschews his compatriots’ sex, drugs, and penis-enhancing treatments to settle in a nice home in a nice neighborhood, with a yard big enough to require a riding mower. The result is the sense that the film is an odd meditation on the dark side of the American Dream; what it takes to achieve it, how far we are willing to go to achieve it, and whether it’s really attainable for everyone. Not too shabby for a guy best known for exploding robots.
Pain & Gain hits theaters April 26, 2013.