Had the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino directed "Pain & Gain," we would have been treated to a wildly violent, acidically comic deconstruction of the American dream as interpreted by three weightlifters who stretch every muscle in their bodies but the ones in their heads.
"Pain & Gain" comes to us through Michael Bay, the popular filmmaker behind the noisy, crashy, bashy "Transformers" box office juggernauts.
"Pain & Gain"★ ½
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris
Directed by: Michael Bay
Other: A Paramount Pictures release. Rated R for drug use, language, nudity, sexual situations, violence. 129 minutes
As a fact-based, black comedy of errors, "Pain & Gain" could have been a stylistic game-changer for the bombastic Bay, but he fails to rise to the challenges of a more nuanced screenplay from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely of "The Chronicles of Narnia" fame.
"Pain & Gain" screams out for a darkly comical touch, just to keep us from becoming horrified by the bodybuilders' escalating, desperate acts.
Bay's sledgehammered direction makes the violence blunt, brutal and ugly and he kills whatever mild empathy we might have mustered for these three judgment-impaired guys.
Instead of adapting his action-movie mentality to the needs of this story, Bay shoves "Pain & Gain" full of his tried-and-true action clichés.
"Unfortunately, this is a true story" the movie's subtitles tell us (and later remind us when events careen so far into excess stupidity that they couldn't possibly have happened. Yet, they did.)
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), an enthusiastic, goal-driven trainer at Miami's Sun Gym during the early 1990s, believes that being fit isn't just a lifestyle choice; it's a patriotic duty.
He strives to be a "doer," not a "don'ter" in the parlance of Ken Jeong's motivational speaker, who pops up from time to time to spur Lugo on to caustic grate-ness.
Wanting the American dream and resenting those who possess it, Lugo plots to kidnap one of his gym clients, the fabulously wealthy Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), and force him to fork over his assets to Lugo and his henchmen, fellow bodybuilders even dumber than he is.
Ex-con and newly sober Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) has just been sprung from the big house. He loves Jesus and sobriety and pumping iron.
Gym denizen Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) has been shooting steroids so long that his libido has left the building. He loves a nurse (Rebel Wilson, supplying needed character humor) who has injections that make magic happen.
But just for him, not for the rest of Bay's "Pain & Gain."
Lugo, Doyle and Doorbal evolve into the Three Stooges as they carry out with monumental incompetence their scheme to abduct and torture Kershaw, who proves too tough to crack under pain.
Finally, the three decide to bump off the witness, so they set him on fire and run over his head with an SUV. And he just won't die.
Things become even more ridiculous. The Dade County police fail to pick up on screaming clues (a prominent citizen vanishes and three bodybuilders move into his gated community and nobody's suspicious?) and never investigate leads.
With the cops enabling them, the muscle-bound trio become brasher, bolder and stupider, daring to con a local porn czar (Michael Rispoli) and suddenly being confronted with accidentally dead bodies to dispose of.
(Time for a trip to Home Depot for chain saws, cleansers and plastic drop cloths! This visit screams out for some Coen-esque humor.)
Ed Harris brings gravitas to his role as the retired cop who finally puts the pieces together. But it's not enough.
Buffed and rebuffed Walberg, perfectly cast as a none-too-bright "doer," sustains his charm only so long before succumbing to Bay's skill for shrill overkill.