Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) believes life has cheated him. Doesn't America promise riches and luxury to people who deserve it? He's worked hard to build his body into a hulking knot of muscles; success should follow. But Lugo — the lead in Michael Bay's neon-noir ode to Miami, muscle tone and the modern American dream — is stuck as an underpaid personal trainer at Miami Lakes' Sun Gym, where he boosts the confidence of customers far less chiseled than he and dreams of a better (read: richer) life.
Inspired to be a "doer" after a seminar featuring inspirational speaker Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), Lugo turns his newfound patriotic zeal into action. He rounds up two accomplices: fellow body-obsessed gym buddy Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), whose steroid use has "messed [him] up down there," and recently released convict Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a mountain of a man who found Jesus and sobriety in lockup but still harbors a pesky violent streak. Together, they plot to kidnap Lugo's rich and ever-sneering Colombian client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and torture him until he gives them everything he owns: his swanky mansion, successful deli, bright orange speedboat, the works.
Bay's Pain & Gain is based on, and mostly faithful to, the eponymous true story penned by Pete Collins for the Miami New Times in late 1999. The Sun Gym Gang isn't made up of professional mobsters. They're muscle-bound egotists with a sense of importance more inflated than their steroid-pumped pecs, and Bay wastes no opportunity for laughs at their expense. They bungle the Kershaw operation in a series of screwups that make the buddy cops in Bad Boys, their predecessors in the Bay movie oeuvre, look James Bond-suave. Dressed in military fatigues, they show up at Kershaw's home expecting to catch him alone; he's hosting a Seder. They target a car at a shopping center, but it's the wrong one, and Kershaw drives away unaware.
Those might sound like juvenile, sitcom-style capers, but as Bay reminds his audience at the film's beginning and again later on, they were real events — real being a relative term in Miami. For moviegoers whose disbelief is still sore from being suspended so high above Bay's earlier CGI-heavy festivals of eye candy like Transformers, the "true story" label keeps the focus on how fun it is to watch these guys.
And the Sun Gym dudes are fun to watch, especially when they finally acquire Kershaw's money, and their own grasp on reality spins out of control. Johnson, as the most timid and complex of the three characters, portrays a relapsing Doyle with both sympathy and humor. Mackie does his best with the script's dick jokes. (Doorbal blows all of his new cash on erectile-dysfunction treatment.) When Lugo straight-facedly convinces his dimwitted stripper girlfriend, Sorina Luminita (Bar Paly), that he's a CIA agent, the scene is so funny you forget what a recklessly sexist "dumb blond" character Sorina is. (Hey, she's based on a real woman.)
Meanwhile, private investigator Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) and Kershaw stake out the gang to try to persuade Miami police to take their tale seriously. What, the cops don't believe sadistic beefcakes in wacky disguises kidnapped a Colombian and nearly beat him to death with dildos over something other than drugs?
It's easy to see why Miami police brush them off: The story is unbelievable. During one particularly absurd chase scene, Bay stops the action to remind viewers that "this is still a true story." Perhaps that's why the director was so drawn to this project, so committed to telling the Sun Gym Gang saga on the big screen that he agreed to direct another Transformers cash cow in return for Paramount Pictures' financial backing. Maybe he wanted to show his critics they're wrong, that crazy action-movie schemes with explosions and car chases aren't just the stuff of flashy summer flicks — that they exist in real life too.
Though this story needs no embellishment, Bay can't help himself. He adds wild sidebars and shoot-outs to the already-insane material. At one point, a character feeds his own severed toe to a Chihuahua. Bay injects slow-mo effects, Instagram-esque freeze-frames, and B-movie-style gore. (Those who remember the Sun Gym Gang's murdered victims probably won't appreciate seeing one of their heads explode like a pumpkin beneath a falling barbell weight.) These cheap tricks work like movie steroids, unnaturally inflating the appearance of what's happening onscreen — and diminishing its overall, uh, potency.
When the story runs off the rails and crashes headfirst into a too-perfect ending, it's because Bay was led astray by the same things that got the Sun Gym Gang into this mess in the first place: superficiality, ambition and the belief that reality just isn't good enough.