It’s 1994. Bodybuilder and personal trainer, Daniel Lugo, takes a rundown gymnasium and turns it into a resort with tight, tanned strippers at poolside and oiled-up buff guns pumping iron, all shining and shimmering in Miami’s rippling eternal day. Lugo, despite his flair for physical makeovers, wishes to extend his eye to painting his entire world as a reflection of his personal, physical success but he doesn’t have the dough that his clients do, and his “thoughts” – if you can call them that – are incapable of penetrating the cosmetic. Danny, though he doesn’t know it, is a moron.
After convincing fellow trainer Adrian (Anthony Mackie) that he should have a life worthy of his body, the two encounter a third accomplice, ex-con/weight lifter/born-again Paul (Dwayne Johnson), and devise a plan to kidnap Lugo’s wealthy client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), and extort his property and wealth by torturing him until he signs it over. Though the enormous Doyle is reluctant, partly convinced that what Lugo suggests is perhaps not a good idea, he is pacified by Danny’s “I’m a doer” attitude, and inspired, by the immortal (and wonderfully potent/transparent) words:
“I’ve watched a lot of movies, Paul, I know what I’m doing.”
It is no particular flex for Wahlberg to play dumb. This role was practically written with his credits in mind. In Lugo he combines the naïve, underclass Derk Diggler of Boogie Nights with the wily, however manic Tommy Corn of I Heart Huckabees but it is actually his own invention – and not so much his cinematic history of affectionate folly, that most suits him to Daniel Lugo – that of 90s rapper-come-Calvin-Klein-model (or was it the other way around?), Marky Mark. Wahlberg did himself live what Daniel Lugo would consider the high life in the mid-90s before P.T. Anderson extended an opportunity. And there is a wink to those white briefs that’s hard to miss.
Bay is all style, and often to the point that his films are un-viewable, and like Danny, his intentions (if any) rarely penetrate the cosmetic surface of his craft. However, here, the style not only informs that content, the two are completely, artfully inspired by one another. Such a marriage was likewise achieved in another recent Floridian film, Soderbergh’s Magic Mike.
The use of Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is profound. The tragedy of the song’s lyrics works beautifully with the fate of the film’s subjects and the song’s own reputation, or misrepresentation by (some) fans – based largely on its style – is so cleverly camouflaged by Bay’s 90s artifice. The entire film looks like a music video, from slow-motion strutting to camcorder Jeep cruising to fluoro-thonged booty-watching.
Though it appears to come as a surprise to some, Pain And Gain is largely a comedy – in the precise way that The Sopranos was. The dialogue is full of malapropism and wordplay, but delivered with such humourless, heartfelt persuasion by Wahlberg, that many of the lines – certainly in the theatre I viewed it in – were not met with the laughter they deserved.
Lugo, with a sense of purpose that enables him to lie his way through every stockade they meet, navigates fearlessly through a myriad of fuck-ups. The film piles the fumbles and failures of these men on so high that it’s dizzying, and then the way in which they address these hurdles – exchanging a chainsaw that was used to dismember someone at a hardware store – is excruciating and hilarious.
Ironically, the film’s comic compliment is dislocated by the presence of comedians Rebel Wilson and Ken Jeong, who belong to an evolution of humour that not only doesn’t suit the true-to-life story or genuine convictions of the criminal trio, it doesn’t suit the 90s and unfortunately these two are, at times, distracting. However, their talents elsewhere forgive them this trespass.
Dwayne Johnson doesn’t appear to get the joke, which is the best compliment to his performance. The arrival of Ed Harris as Ed Du Bois and Michael Rispoli (essential Sopranos cast member) as king pin Frank Griga give the film its second wind after a brief cool-down following the torture scenes. Harris, the only throw back to the golden age gangster flick, is a handsome, retired private eye with a voice so rich and sweet, it will rouse an attraction in the actor that even his long-time admirers haven’t felt before. Du Bois is also the narrator, whose mysterious vocals introduce the film into a noir framework, swathing Bay’s gangster’s paradise with even more Miami heat. Pain And Gain, though a small-scale story for Bay, is cinema on steroids and it sweats style.