“You ever just get tired of being where you are?” Daniel (Mark Wahlberg) isn’t completely sure what he’s asking, but when his buddy, Adrian (Anthony Mackie), wonders out loud whether he means here, literally, working in the Sun Gym in Miami Lakes as a trainer for wealthy, self-important clients, Daniel frowns and tries to explain. No, he means tired of being in a place in life. The gym, the job, these are temporary, a step along the way to a better place, one where he’s richer and happier, more like everyone else.
It helps that Daniel imagines himself to be so unlike everyone else, because Pain & Gain needs him to be as different as possible from you, so that you can laugh at his ridiculous literal-mindedness, his lack of self-awareness and monumental capacity for self-delusion. The movie submits that he’s a product of a specific culture, that he’s a juice-head, living in a certain era and a certain place. He misunderstands so that you don’t have to.
His misunderstanding is bolstered by Adrian’s. The buddy who’s always a step behind confirms for Daniel that his ambition is worthy, and so he assembles a plan to move on to that other place. That pan begins with kidnapping one of those wealthy clients, a wholly hateful putz named Victor (Tony Shaloub). He convinces Adrian and a third buddy Paul (Dwayne Johnson), not only a gym rat but also a born-again ex-con, to abduct Victor and then keep him tied up in a warehouse, mostly blindfolded and tortured and fed Taco Supremes until he signs over all his deeds and bank accounts. That this takes over a month doesn’t so much daunt the trio as it fuels their commitment: they’ve put in this much time and effort, they clearly deserve a payoff. That this now hinges on killing Victor—who recognizes Daniel’s distinctive after-shave immediately—doesn’t daunt them either.
That they remain so committed to Daniel’s vision of the place where they should be is a testament to the men’s inability to imagine much beyond their immediate desires—or at least Daniel’s desires. The threesome is cartoonish and idiotic in the ways that criminals tend to be in Michael Bay movies, broadly drawn, self-deluding objects of derision. “I believe in fitness,” announces Daniel in voiceover when you first see him, running from police cruisers just before he runs into a police cruiser. As he bounces off the hood, his face contorted and his very fit body in obvious pain, the film slips into the extended flashback, a trite formal gimmick to set up a trajectory back to where you’ve started.
From here, you don’t so much see how Daniel has come to this peculiar admixture of belief and abuse as you see how the movie means to make fun of that admixture. In this sense, Pain & Gain might be understood as commentary on its own Michael Bay-ness, simultaneously distilling and expanding the Michael Bay formula. Such understanding might even seem bolstered by the film’s source material, namely, real-life criminals whose exploits were chronicled in a series of stories by Miami New Times’ reporter Peter Collins. But the commentary is as limited as its object. And in that sense, the movie does what all Michael Bay movies do, which is to provide excess in order to call it excess.
Just so, Daniel and his cronies beat Victor to a bloody pulp, then crash and try to burn him in his car, then run him over. It’s excessive and brutal and stupid too, as Daniel convinces Paul not only to commit each act, but then to understand that he’s done it on his own, suggesting that Daniel means to control the narrative if or when they face legal questions (“We didn’t just kill someone, you just killed someone”). In the self-deluding too, the film delivers a kind of excess, adding on to Daniel’s initial voiceover a slew of others, each of the central players observing the action or intimating a particular view of it. But this pile-on of perspectives is yet another instance of excess, not detailing character as much as it overkills the convention of voiceover. These only reveal that the three guys are swirling within the same mutual druggy, aspirational haze: when any one of them feels apprehensive, the nearest buddy encourages him to “get a pump,” as they lose themselves in frenzy of bicep-curling and self-distraction.
Victor gets a voiceover, too, which allows him to express his frustration during his captivity and abuse and after, as well, when it turns out that he’s so unlikeable that even the cops won’t believe him. Here again, the film piles on, in lieu of any story structure that might be termed “development”. As Victor lives in pain (his injuries massively visible), his abusers gain, at least until they blow their wads on the usual instant gratifications. Each devolves into his own worst version of himself: Paul relapses into coke addiction and briefly indulges in a relationship with Daniel’s ex, a stripper named Sorina Luminita (Bar Paly). Adrian finds solace for his steroids-induced impotence with his doting nurse, Robin Peck (Rebel Wilson). And Daniel moves into Victor’s mansion and begins dispensing his life wisdom on a pack of 10-year-old neighbors/acolytes.
Each of these stories night be its own movie. But as this one turns into a list of offenses and consequences, each episode one-upping the one before while none has much to do with the others, you might be thinking that the excess is excessive. You might even be feeling tired of where you are, which means you might feel relief—however briefly—that yet another voiceover offers yet another point of view. This is provided by the private detective Ed (Ed Harris), whom Victor hires out of desperation. When Ed squints into the sun, pausing before he speaks, it’s as if the movie slows down, or maybe takes a break between sets.