Leaving the ludicrously successful world of sentient robotic beings destroying the world bit-by-bit (otherwise known as Transformers), director Michael Bay lends his hand to dark satire Pain & Gain, the bizarrely true story of a mid-90s plot that saw three bodybuilders extort and blackmail their way to success. It’s regrettable, then, that what is, at times, a well performed and deliciously dark deconstruction of the American Dream, quickly becomes a distasteful and hard-featured botch job thanks to Bay’s inability to be anything but over-the-top and overambitious.
Ex-convict Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a bodybuilder and risk-taker, takes his lifelong ambition of achieving the long-sought-after American Dream to a level beyond his – or anyone else’s, for that matter – capabilities when he recruits fellow bodybuilders Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to help him extort his rich client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). It’s only a matter of time before their plan goes colossally awry and the trio find themselves trailed by retired private investigator Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris).
To say that Pain & Gain flounders a spot-on screenplay would be an understatement. It’s disheartening, in fact, to watch as screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s work is stretched and suffocated so indecently by Bay. The quick-witted wisdom of the first act in which the audience are first introduced to Daniel – played with an edginess and keen flare by Wahlberg – and his absurd plan is wonderful: razor-sharp, to-the-point and wonderfully satirical. It’s a terrific setup, as it leaves the audience desperate to see how badly they mess up.
As their scheme – from kidnap, right through to torture and fraud – is put into effect, however, it’s not only them that collapse under the pressure. The film loses its well-contained edge and becomes something much bigger, something much less interesting that what came before it. Before long, chaos reigns supreme. Bay stuffs so many of his trademarks into the fold – explosions, car chases and unnecessarily lingering close ups of bikini clad woman, to name but a few – that the film soon becomes irritating to the point where you’re willing it desperately to end.
The heart of the film, too, is lost. No more is Pain & Gain a critique on the corrupt nature of American foolishness, rather a Transformers film without the robots. The trio of Wahlberg, Mackie and Johnson keep the film mildly entertaining simply with their enthusiastic and avid performances (Johnson, in particular, is a treat as the ex-con turned evangelic Christian), and their chemistry brings to pass a number of laughs. There’s simply no rectifying the frustrating wreck Pain & Gain becomes though. Bay is, without a doubt, made for Transformers. And he’s better off there, well out of harms way.