When you think of actors whose screen careers were inextricably linked with cars, chances are your mind will conjure images of Steve McQueen flying through those San Francisco streets in that Mustang GT, Burt Reynolds fishtailing a black and gold Screaming Chicken through bayou country, or maybe even singer, James Taylor, racing a GTO Judge cross-country in his monster Chevy 150.
These days, there are a host of actors for whom hot cars are an intrinsic element to the films they make, and Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson are two of them.
Wahlberg unforgettably drove an orange ’77 C3 Corvette around the sordid streets of Hollywood as porn star Dirk Diggler in the 1997 Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece Boogie Nights, a host of vintage and modern Aston Martins in Antoine Fuqua’s 2021 sci-fi thriller Infinite, and a sinister, black 1970 Dodge Challenger in 2013’s 2 Guns with Denzel Washington.
Dwayne Johnson likewise has had some impressive rides in his movies. That awesome 1967 GTO and ‘70 Chevy Chevelle SS in Faster, and a nearly unaccountable number of modded cars and trucks in the Fast and the Furious franchise films he has appeared in.
What’s more, both actors’ on-screen personas aren’t the only ones who dig cars, as Wahlberg’s personal collection includes Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Porsches and AMG Benzes, while Johnson has a garage that contains a Ferrari LaFerrari, a Pagani Huayra, various and sundry McLarens and Lamborghinis, and wouldn’t you know, a ’70 Chevelle SS.
So, what would happen if you put both of these guys in a movie, and threw in car enthusiast Michael Bay as a director? You’d get a veritable automotive museum inside of a movie. In other words, 2013’s Pain & Gain.
Pain & Gain is based on a series of events that occurred in Miami, Florida in the mid-1990s involving what became known as the Sun Gym gang, a group of professional bodybuilders and ex-cons who committed kidnappings, extortion, and murder for financial gain.
Originally detailed in a series of lurid Miami New Times articles in 1999 by Pete Collins, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely adapted these into an original screenplay. Michael Bay, normally known for large action pictures such as Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and the Transformers franchise was attracted to the project for its modest size and budget, thinking that it would be an interesting change of pace.
Bay signed on to helm, and the project was produced by De Line Pictures and Phoenix International in conjunction with Paramount Pictures, which also handled American distribution.
In addition to Wahlberg and Johnson, an excellent ensemble cast was formed, including Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Rebel Wilson, Michael Rispoli, Peter Stormare, and Ken Jeong.
Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) and Adrian Doorbal (Mackie) are two men with infinitely more brawn than brains, who lament the fact that they are leading low-wage lives, while the wealthy clients they train at the Sun Gym, seem to have it all – cars, women, lavish homes, and exotic travel.
After attending a seminar by slimy motivational speaker Johnny Wu (Jeong), Lugo is inspired to be a “doer” in life, and enlists Doorbal and a new trainer at the gym, ex-con Paul Doyle (Johnson), to kidnap and extort Victor Kershaw (Shalhoub), a successful entrepreneur and Sun Gym client.
After several bungled attempts, the gang succeeds in kidnapping Kershaw and tortures him into signing over much of his assets. Though blindfolded throughout, Kershaw recognizes Lugo via his cheap cologne, and a monkey wrench is thrown into the plan, requiring the men to murder Kershaw lest he identify them to the police.
In a particularly brutal scene, the three men think they have disposed of their hostage, but Kershaw clings to life. After discharging himself from the hospital, Kershaw enlists the aid of a private detective, Ed DuBois (Harris) to locate Lugo and crew, after the police fail to dig anything up.
Meanwhile, the Sun Gym crew are living it up, blowing Kershaw’s money on clothes, cars, and cocaine. The lifestyle doesn’t last long, and soon the three criminals are at it again, seeking to lure Frank Griga (Rispoli), owner of a phone sex operation, into a phony money-making scheme. Things go badly, and a fight between Lugo and Griga breaks out, leading to the latter’s death.
Things are now fully out of control, and the crew find themselves having to dispose of bodies, while trying to elude DuBois who is hot on their heels.
Before I get into my analysis, a brief vent is in order on my part. I have loathed virtually every movie Michael Bay has ever made. With the exception of 13 Hours, which while entertaining, had a host of problems, I find Bay’s films to be insipid, shallow, and bombastic, devoid of feeling or empathy for their own characters, and lacking any point whatsoever other than to titillate teenage boys with gratuitous violence, blatant sexism, and flashy material possessions.
Phew. Having gotten that off my chest, while Pain & Gain is indeed a bit different in size and scope from Bay’s normal fare, he does not hesitate to bring all his normal little tricks and clichés to these proceedings as well.
For starters, this is an ultra-violent movie, with scenes of torture, dismemberment, and even a sequence where severed human hands are cooked on a barbecue, yet Bay decided to set a rather odd tone by infusing the entire film with quirky humor.
Now, I’ve got no problem with violent movies, and certainly, many directors have pulled off the delicate balance of making violent acts so over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek that they cause an audience to laugh, a la the severed ear scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and multiple murders in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino. That’s not the type of humor I’m talking about in this case, though. I’m referring to scenes of utter brutality that the main characters revel in, cheer over, and make off-color jokes about.
Keeping in mind this is a true story (though it has been revealed that parts have been heavily dramatized in classic Hollywood fashion ) it’s not really funny to see the characters of Wahlberg, Johnson, et al, make breast implant jokes during a vivisection scene. In fact, it comes off as rather offensive at times knowing these laughs are at the expense of the real family and friends of those murdered. Kinda bad taste there, Mr. Bay.
Ultimately this makes the viewer completely unsympathetic to the characters in the film, which then makes you ask, “why am I watching this?”
All of this violence is photographed in Bay’s now hackneyed manner, involving a constantly twitching camera, post-production color manipulation that infuses the mise en scene with an over-abundance of golds and teals, and editing that is so quick and scattershot that your brain at times cannot keep up with what it’s seeing.
On the plus side, the film’s performances are universally excellent, with Ed Harris standing out as always, and there are a smattering of some funny situations and dialogue throughout the film.
Also a big plus are the film’s cars. An even split between vintage classic muscle and modern exotics, there is something for every car enthusiast here.
While Lugo begins the film driving a dreadful, bright red 1988 Pontiac Fiero with Scooby-Doo seat covers, his ill-gotten gains later in the movie include a Porsche 911 Carrera slope-nose convertible and a metallic purple 1997 Lamborghini Diablo VT Roadster.
Likewise, Doorbal gravitates to a new set of wheels in the form of a 1997 Plymouth Prowler, a modern interpretation of a chopped-top hot rod from the fifties.
Other cars that make an appearance are a splendid 1970 Oldsmobile 442 convertible in eye-popping Sebring Yellow, a gorgeous, black 1969 Mustang GT convertible, a big ol’ 1971 Chevy Impala, and a host of other Lamborghinis, BMWs, Ferraris, and Mercedes.
There’s only one scene of true high-speed action, but it’s a good one, involving Lugo driving that purple Diablo at triple-digit speeds on one of Miami’s causeways.
I genuinely wanted to like Pain & Gain going into it, as I’m a big fan of stories about true crime, and especially exceedingly unusual ones. I do believe there is a movie to be made about the actions of the Sun Gym gang, however, Michael Bay’s version just isn’t it. Its crassness, lack of any form of empathy, and its cadre of despicable, one-dimensional characters who possess no redeemable qualities makes for a film I wouldn’t want to sit through twice, even if only to ogle that collection of amazing cars.
I give Pain & Gain five out of ten pistons, and suggest you skip it.