In the wrap-up of Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain,” Ed Harris’ character, a retired detective named Ed DuBois, narrates the summary of the court case involving three bodybuilders turned kidnapping, extorting serial killers. He calls the case, in general, one of the most unique trials in history, based on the colorful witnesses and the egotistical defendants. His narration is a reminder of what he said at the film’s onset: “Unfortunately, this is a true story.” But Bay’s film, starring Mark Wahlberg, is so funny that he felt obliged, in editing, to settle viewers down with a closed caption midway through the film that reminds you of this Miami reality. Overall, “Pain & Gain” is a two-way, gut-wrenching comedy.
Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo is a self-proclaimed do-er and self-made bodybuilder, but he’s a dangerous manipulator who takes advantage of a couple gym buddies, played by Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson. He’s the mastermind behind a get rich quick scheme involving kidnapping and forgery against his personal training client Victor Kershaw, a rich Colombian who has been to the rodeo once or twice. As Kershaw proves more difficult to break, Lugo’s torturous ideas become more inventive and ridiculous, which relate to the film’s comedy. The laughs begin with a pair of empty kidnapping attempts because Lugo and his crew are such amateurs, but the film develops into a hilarious showcase of the trio’s far-fetched, ludicrous ideas and antics. Remember, this is a true story.
In the director’s seat, Bay doesn’t try to make “Pain & Gain” a serious biopic; instead, his movie rubs off as a farce built to poke fun at its criminals. He makes the film more versatile by accepting at least five narrators to tell the story from different points of view. It puts you inside Lugo’s sporadic mind and makes you sympathize with Paul Doyle, Johnson’s character, who made poor choices by going along with Lugo’s plot but still comes off as a minor victim. In contrast, DuBois comes off as the main, clerical narrator, thus less entertaining and controversial. Elsewhere, “Pain & Gain” looks a lot like a Bay film. Driving Kershaw’s car into a cement barrier wasn’t enough? Blow it up. Even so, I still can’t help but enjoy his camera shots, taking us from one room, through a whole in the wall or break in the glass, and into another.
Sideshows like Rebel Wilson and Ken Jeong make “Pain & Gain” a textbook comedy sprinkled with the right seasoning, but the film’s biggest challenge is weighted in deciding what it wants to be. The aforementioned closed caption assurance plus the end credits that show the criminals’ real mugshots create an imbalance between farce and historical representation, but you’re not getting an “American Gangster” (2007) or “Erin Brockovich” (2000) here. Instead, “Pain & Gain” is a pretty good comedy, with a ambitiously complimentary soundtrack, if you accept it as such. Either way, it’s probably important, as a stable-minded audience, to remember that these dudes were real-life killers.
“Pain & Gain”: ★★1/2