Pain & Gain screened after WW deadlines, but Michael Nordine did his critic's duty. Expecting a great deal of pain and awfully little gain, he was pleasantly surprised.
Critic's Grade: B-
When considering the merits of Dwayne Johnson's cinematic oeuvre, it's helpful to keep one thing in mind: The Rock's movies may not be especially good most of the time, but he still makes for an infinitely more likable lead than most of his peers in the action-comedy subgenre. It's doubtful that even the most ardent critics of Tooth Fairy
(a long list that presumably includes nearly everyone who saw Tooth Fairy
) would deny the part-time WWE star's inherent charisma, with his easygoing demeanor and thousand-watt smile providing a vital counterbalance to his imposing physique. That’s something sorely absent not only in every other wrestler-turned-actor, but also in the many Sam Worthingtons and Gerard Butlers of the world. All of which is a long way of saying that it comes as a pleasant surprise that Johnson's new movie isn't all that bad, despite being directed by Michael Bay. Pain & Gain
, Bay's first non-toy commercial in nearly a decade, boasts a comparatively small budget in addition to a robust cast led by Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson, Rob Corddry and Peter Stormare. Other than Wahlberg—who plays Daniel Lugo, a former personal trainer/bodybuilder from Miami currently on death row for crimes he committed in 1995—the only one given a role worthy of his talents is, somewhat surprisingly, Johnson.
Johnson plays Paul Doyle, an accomplice of Lugo's. Doyle is a mostly gentle giant who gets in over his head, but he remains the closest thing the film has to a moral compass. Lugo (whose narrated manifesto includes lines like “The way to prove yourself is to better yourself—that’s the American dream”) decides to be a “doer” after attending a self-improvement seminar. That in mind, he launches a plot to part a wealthy client (Shalhoub) from his considerable fortune. The ensuing hijinks feature all the slow-mo, violence, bottle-blondes and casual homophobia we’ve come, resentfully, to expect from Bay. What’s unexpected, however, is that Pain & Gain still occasionally manages to transcend the mindless, bringing to mind the much more nuanced Bernie in its examination of outwardly likable villains and what the private investigator played by Harris would call “very difficult victims.” People don’t much care when bad things happen to bad people.
Bay’s evocation of all that’s wrong with his antiheroes' American Dream could hardly be spelled out more clearly, but how many of his films can be said to rest upon an ideological foundation of any kind? Pain & Gain tells a story so perfectly suited to its director's music-video aesthetic that it almost seems immaterial whether said filmmaker knows (or cares) that he’s part of the surface-level pursuits his film both glamorizes and laments.