You don’t want an action comedy to cross the line and become an assault on the audience, but Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain” does precisely that before half of its unconscionably long running-time has passed. Intended as a dark comedy, based on an actual case, in which three muscle-bound Miami miscreants kidnap a rich slimeball and torture him into signing over all his assets to them, it wants to be a goofy blend of farce and violence but comes off as a nasty, brutal, cringe-inducing misfire.
There is some slight compensation in that the leads try desperately to be likable. Primary among them is Mark Wahlberg, who looks seriously buffed up as Danny Lugo, long-time personal trainer at Sun Gym, who informs us in his part of the narration (which is passed around from character to character) that he’s unhappy with his life. Taking a cue from a loud-mouthed motivational speaker (Ken Jeong, again going the cartoon route), Lugo determines to become a “doer”—which in his case means doing a particularly cruel type of heist on his sneering, arrogant client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, who plays the guy as such a loathsome creep that you might feel that he deserves what he gets—until what he gets becomes as unendurable for the viewer as it is for Kershaw).
Lugo persuades another dim-bulb trainer at the gym, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), to join in his plan—mostly because he needs cash for treatment to restore his penis, shrunken by steroid use, to normal size–and then recruits man-mountain ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to sign up as well, though the guy, who found Jesus in jail and just had a run-in with the predatory pastor who’s taken him in, insists that he’ll have no part in killing, and Danny assures him that won’t be necessary. The deal done, the three nab Kershaw, though in takes them several inept tries to do so.
Of course Lugo is lying, and after a protracted series of numbingly ugly sequences in which Kershaw is trussed up and tortured in an abandoned factory—a stretch of the picture that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a “Saw” sequel—Lugo gets the necessary legal papers signed (with the assistant his shady gym boss, played colorlessly by Rob Corrdry, who just happens to be a notary in need of funds himself) and then announces that Kershaw has to be disposed up. They try to off the guy in a staged car crash, but when that fails attempt to immolate him and finally run him over with their van (characteristically, Bay practically shows you the tire squashing his head). This whole sequence is so tonally off that you might find yourself longing for the deadpan humor of “The Ladykillers”—though to be fair even the Coens couldn’t pull it off in their remake in the way Alexander MacKendrick had done in the original (helped by the fact he wasn’t working in color).
But even then Kershaw survives, though he’s such a creep that the cops refuse to believe his yarn and, now penniless, he’s forced to rely on retired private eye Ed Du Bos (Ed Harris) for help. So just when you think the story might be winding down, it’s thrown back into high gear when for various reasons (Doyle’s developed a coke habit and Doorbal’s purchased an expensive house for his new wife, a clinic technician played with her usual stick by Rebel Wilson, while Danny’s so spooked by Kershaw’s survival and the investigation it’s spawned that he’s anxious to dump the guy’s mansion and give up the life he’s established as leader of the neighborhood watch). They decide to scam local porn czar Frank Grin (Michael Rispoli, sleazily amusing) as they did Kershaw, but this time their blunders result in their killing the guy and disposing of his body in stomach-churning fashion (at one point doing something unmentionable with the severed hands of Grin and his wife). And that ultimately leads to their capture and conviction.
You have to credit Wahlberg and Johnson with giving their all to this unsavory concoction—the former’s energy is boundless, and “The Rock” has some fun with Doyle’s religious fanaticism, as overdone as it is)—but Bay’s touch with the material is so overbearing and crude that whatever good will their performances engender quickly dissipates. Simply put, Lugo and Doyle and meant to be lovable lugs—clownish and dumb, but still lovable—and they instead become despicable because of the degree of blood and guts Bay shoves into our faces. By contrast, Mackie’s Doorbal fades into the background for the most part, but morally he’s as bankrupt as his partners in crime. (In fact, Harris’ Du Bos is the only character in the movie who comes off looking decent.) Sure, presumably the director wants to say something about how the American Dream has been perverted by greed and violence, but since the film panders to the basest instincts he’s purporting to satirize, it winds up an example of the problem itself.
Although the picture is on a far smaller scale than Bay’s previous action extravaganzas, it’s just as loud and bombastic. You have to admit, however, that within the parameters of his in-your-face style, Ben Seresin’s cinematography, Jeffrey Beecroft’s production design and Sebastian Schroeder’s art direction are top-notch. One could stand a lot less of Steve Jablonsky’s score, though, especially when it’s cranked up so loud that its propulsive racket almost makes your ears bleed.
The title of “Pain & Gain” invites sarcasm—all pain, no gain, and so forth, or “It’s half right.” By trying to pummel you into euphoria by sheer excess, its desperation only manages to bring on fatigue.