MRR Review: "Pain & Gain"

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Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson star in this Michael Bay-directed action comedy about a group of Miami bodybuilders who get caught up in a campaign for kidnapping, extortion and murder. Based on a true story that was first told via magazine by investigative journalist Pete Collins.
3.5

MRR Review: "Pain & Gain"

-- Rating: R (bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout, and drug use)
Length: 129 minutes
Release Date: April 26, 2013
Directed by: Michael Bay
Genre: Action/Comedy/Crime

The latest offering from director Michael Bay ("Transformers," "Armageddon"), "Pain & Gain" is not what viewers may be expecting. The action-comedy, based on an incredible true story, lacks the explosions and special effects Bay is typically known for, and its relatively low budget-a mere $26 million-lends it an unexpectedly gritty, independent feel.

The film features an all-star cast, with a particularly buff and tan Mark Wahlberg ("The Fighter") taking the lead as bodybuilder and ex-convict Daniel Lugo, a man who dreams of improving his life without having to put in the education, hard work, or sacrifice typically required for such an endeavor. A motivational speech from Johnny Wu, played by delightful character actor Ken Jeong ("The Hangover") inspires Lugo to take charge of his destiny and start making things happen. He starts in his own gym, by recruiting fellow employees Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson, "G.I. Joe: Retaliation") and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie, "The Hurt Locker") to join him on his quest.

Doyle, an ex-con himself and something of a gentle giant, and Doorbal, a fantastically clueless musclehead, are quick to get on board. The men set their sights on a particularly wealthy-and particularly odious-client (Tony Shaloub, "Monk"), planning to kidnap him to extort his fortune away from him. Once accomplished, they intend to live out their American dreams.

The trio's missteps along the way are absurd to the point of dark hilarity. Their dedication to the plan but inability to effectively carry it out points the film quite naturally in the direction of grim comedy. Without an overwhelming focus on special effects, Bay is free to play with camera angles, sudden cuts and narrative shifts that help give the movie an almost out-of-control feeling.

Just as the film is about to go off the rails and into complete absurdity, Ed DuBois (Ed Harris, "A Beautiful Mind") arrives on the scene to crack the case and capture the criminals. DuBois' sleuthing adds much-needed grounding and realism to a second act that threatened to become more farce than action.

Popcorn movie fans will appreciate Bay's staple of beautiful but vapid women and gratuitous fast cars. There's ample violence to keep action fans satisfied. But the real draw to "Pain & Gain" is Bay's return to his roots. The snappy, colorful script balances action and comedy in a way similar to Guy Ritchie's "Snatch." Bay takes advantage of his on-screen talent and fascinating story to really direct his actors. Ultimately, he creates a visually stunning piece that demonstrates nothing so much as the talent that audiences might never have known he was hiding under giant meteors and killer robots.

Supporting performances from Rob Corddry ("Hot Tub Time Machine"), Rebel Wilson ("Bridesmaids"), and Tony Plana ("Ugly Betty") round out what is a very strong cast. Wilson, in particular, manages to steal every scene she's in as Robin Peck, the nurse with whom Doorbal is madly in love.

"Pain & Gain" is not a film audiences will universally love or hate. It's also hard to assign it a mediocre grade. Instead, this is a movie each individual is likely to love or to hate. At over two hours, it runs long for a movie billed as an action comedy. The focus on plot, character, and dialogue is out of the ordinary for Bay's recent works and for the genre itself. The story, even though it's based on the true capers of the real-life bozos who tried to pull this off, can be hard to swallow, follow, or digest. However, those who enjoy it-those who appreciate the performances, the script, or the utterly beleaguering story itself-are likely to enjoy it tremendously.

Like "Fargo" or "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "Pain & Gain" has the makings of a cult classic all over it. The ingredients are all there. The star power alone-of the cast and the director-could, in many cases, be enough to create a blockbuster hit. Instead, "Pain & Gain" is likely to travel slowly, by word of mouth, among those who'll appreciate its off-kilter moments, unusual pacing, and out-of-character performances.

"Pain & Gain" is a crime flick first and an action movie second. Much of the comedy is gallows style, which results from the characters' utter ineptitude. While the violence is not especially gory, it's frequent, and the themes of torture, extortion, and murder make it unsuitable viewing for children.

In the end, "Pain & Gain" is not the summer blockbuster you'd normally expect from Michael Bay. All the same, those who appreciate well-written, well-acted stories with an element of dark humor are likely to enjoy the film, whether on the big screen or at home on the sofa.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5