By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
9:10 PM EDT, April 25, 2013
When Michael Bay goes small, "Pain & Gain" happens.
Humans handle the bone-crunching. The gore becomes gorier. The dialogue increases substantially too.
Metal things may not transform, but they still make a world of hurt delivered by "Pain & Gain's" iron-pumping bodybuilders.
The suddenly budget-conscious Bay shot the movie in and around his Miami mansion, so maybe that reference to "Mickey D's fries" wasn't a joke. And yet he still can't wrap up the action in less than two hours.
"Pain & Gain" is based on the true story of a kidnapping scam in the mid-'90s cooked up by a trio of bodybuilders. Maybe it's the steroids, maybe they were born that way, but the brawny bunch portrayed by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and a jacked-up Anthony Mackie are really thick in every sense of the word.
It makes for some stupid/slap-shtick fun of the Stooges variety — that is, if Larry, Curly and Moe had been hunky gym rats engaged in illegal activity.
The screenwriting team Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely adapted the story from a series of newspaper articles by Pete Collins about the notorious Florida fiasco. M&M were part of the writing pack for the gentle "Narnia" films and the upright citizen "Captain America." For "Pain," they have gone solo and bad to the bone with mixed results.
Some of the dialogue is very snappy, some of it a little sappy, all of it super salty with the sort of four-letter carpet bombing that ensured an R before the first boob was bared or blood was shed.
The "brains" behind this mess-up belong to Danny Lugo (Wahlberg), who makes his living as a trainer at a Miami gym. Most of his clients are rich guys he increasingly resents for their funds as well as their flab. A day with motivational speaker Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong) persuades Danny that he can be a "doer" not a "don't-er" — Wu's bad grammar and bad advice clearly intended.
At first Danny is content to take his newfound wisdom to a new gym run by John Mese (Rob Corddry). He's a great success, but before long he wants more. Specifically, Danny wants everything that one of his regulars, the thoroughly despicable and filthy rich Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), has. He quickly enlists steroid-junkie Adrian (Mackie) and the newly paroled, sober and salvation-infused Paul (Johnson).
Somehow Danny thinks that they can kidnap Victor, force him to sign over all of his assets and not have anyone, including the bankers, his employees or even his family tip off the police. Weirdly, that is basically what happens.
But Victor, bravely played by Shalhoub, turns out to be a surprisingly tough nut to crack. A good deal of the movie is spent in the cracking, and a lot of pain is inflicted in the process. The brutality is tough to stomach, even for Paul and Adrian; some moviegoers will find it untenable. The extreme measures are so insanely bizarre that reminders this is a true story keep popping up on the screen.
Victor isn't their only mark, or their only mistake. Beyond the scamming, there are side stories about medical issues, a marriage and a neighborhood watch.
Suffice it to say, "Pain & Gain" is not going to overshadow "The Fighter," "Boogie Nights" or the raunchy fun of "Ted" on Wahlberg's vita. Still, he's responsible for much of the heavy lifting and he does a decent job of making the movie more bearable. Meanwhile, Johnson's Paul is really quite funny as the biggest dolt and the guy who's got religion. Although a word of warning: Don't threaten to tell Jesus if you spot Paul sinning. He does not deal with that well.
Bay has enlisted a few "Transformers" cohorts to help keep things polished, including director of photography Ben Seresin and composer Steve Jablonsky. The action is definitely more bare bones — the film's $25-million budget is probably about what the opening sequences cost in most of the director's other films. But that sense of extreme, excess, over-the-top everything is there from start to finish. And isn't that what Bay fans count on even at cut-rate prices?
'Pain & Gain'
MPAA rating: R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, rough language throughout and drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Playing: In general release
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