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At the Movies: 'Pain & Gain' is all brawn and no brains

Apr. 27, 2013 - 08:11AM   |  
From left, Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie appear in a scene from the film 'Pain & Gain.'
From left, Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie appear in a scene from the film 'Pain & Gain.' (Mark Fellman/Paramount Pictures via Gannett)
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‘Pain & Gain’
Rated R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use.

Memo to director Michael Bay: Stick to movies with massive pyrotechnics and minimally developed characters.

Blending sharp wit and brutality is a tough proposition. Best to leave such a feat in the nimbler hands of Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonagh.

Bay’s Pain & Gain is a badly constructed, blood-spattered caper that comes unglued early on.

In the hands of a smart social satirist, this story of greedy sleazeballs might have been a clever cautionary tale. Or simply funny. Instead, it’s crass, overlong and chaotic.

While the story starts with some promise and a couple of good jokes, Pain never attains edgy comedy status. It’s not the fault of the actors, an impressive ensemble headed by the engaging Dwayne Johnson. Putting Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson and Rob Corddry in the same movie is an inspired notion.

Yet flashes of humor fade away before the halfway mark, and then the whole enterprise goes off the rails, crashes and burns.

The story of a trio of larcenous bodybuilders is set in Miami in 1995 and is based on a bizarre real-life crime. Fueled by steroids and cocaine, these guys have an exceptionally clumsy way with criminality. Mark Wahlberg plays ringleader Daniel Lugo, who convinces his musclebound pals Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Johnson) to aid and abet a get-rich-quick scheme. It entails the kidnapping and extortion of Victor Kershaw (Shalhoub), a wealthy businessman whom Lugo trains at the gym. After abducting Kershaw, Lugo expects him to calmly hand over all of his worldly assets. Fat chance. When Kershaw resists, Lugo and his chiseled cohorts turn to torture.

Johnson’s Doyle is an ex-con who’s found religion. Before hooking up with Lugo and Doorbal, he had tried to go legit. The tug-of-war between Doyle’s flaring temper, massive strength and Christian values makes for the film’s best performance. But it’s not enough to save this muddled, misogynistic mess.

Wahlberg’s Lugo is buff, egotistical and swayed by the psychobabble of lame-brained motivational speaker Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong). “Don’t be a don’t-er,” Wu exhorts. “Do be a doer.”

Shalhoub’s Kershaw is a tenacious guy who refuses to go down without a fight. Then he disappears from the movie for a long stretch -- but not for plot-related reasons. Bay takes a wrong-headed turn down seedy side roads marked by gratuitous violence, with some especially malicious nastiness aimed at women.

What might have been a viable stranger-than-fiction tale is undone by ham-fisted execution, numbingly brutal energy and dim wit. It all makes for plenty of pain and no cinematic gain.

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