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Pain & Gain' will pump you up

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Real-life tale shows truth is stranger than fiction

Michael Bay and 'based on a true story' doesn't really seem to make a lot of sense, does it? This is a guy who somehow managed to make giant transforming alien robots even more infantile and ridiculous in practice than in theory is he really the guy to bring truth to the screen?

Nine hundred ninety-nine times out of a thousand, the answer would be a resounding 'no.' However, he has somehow managed to find the one story where the answer is a giddy, glorious 'yes.'

'Pain & Gain' is the real-life story of a group of ambitious Miami bodybuilders who put together and executed an over-the-top plot to kidnap a local man with wealth springing from questionable sources and force him to hand it all over to them. In essence, it's already reality's version of a Michael Bay movie. And it's really pretty awesome.

I'm as surprised as you are.

Mark Wahlberg ('Broken City') stars as Daniel Lugo, a muscleheaded fitness trainer with grandiose visions of achieving the American dream. He's good at his job, but he feels like he's destined for more, for the sorts of heights reached by his heroes (who are almost exclusively movie characters, by the way). The only thing he obsesses over more than his biceps is the idea of becoming rich. 

When Daniel takes on Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub, 'Hemingway & Gellhorn') as a new client, he sees a path to all the successes of his dreams. Kershaw is by all accounts a terrible person, but he's wealthy. Daniel hatches a plan to kidnap Victor and force him to sign over all of his assets. But he can't do it alone.

He recruits a fellow trainer from the gym named Adrian (Anthony Mackie, 'Gangster Squad') a juicer currently experiencing some difficulties with his 'equipment' to join in the endeavor. The third member of the team is Paul (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, 'GI Joe: Retaliation'), an ex-con fresh out of jail who has gotten sober and found God.

Despite an utter lack of anything resembling a real plan, the trio manages to get their hands on Kershaw (after a few bumbled initial attempts). They spend days upon days wearing Kershaw down until he finally relents and signs the documents required of him. Daniel then determines that they need to dispose of Kershaw.

Unfortunately for them (and fortunately for Victor), they're even worse at killing guys then they are at kidnapping them. Kershaw survives, and while the police initially don't believe his outlandish story, he manages to convince private detective Ed DuBois (Ed Harris, 'Phantom') to help him. 

Daniel, Adrian and Paul are living the high life on Kershaw's dime, but their own greed- and avarice-fueled demons are rising to the forefront, resulting in decisions that send them on a downward spiral from which they can see only one way to extricate themselves.

Daniel Lugo is the sort of role that Wahlberg was born to play a genuine yet misguided meathead. His inescapable earnestness plays wonderfully here. Mackie is on the verge of breaking out as a real star; this is the kind of role that really helps him on that journey. Both men convey their emotions and motivations clearly and cleanly.

But the real breakout performance here comes from The Rock of all people. He has finally found a part that marries everything he does well the goofiness, the self-awareness, the boundless charisma with some darker, more introspective and honest moments. He's shockingly good here.

The supporting cast is superb. Shaloub is the most unlikeable onscreen victim you're ever likely to encounter. He's infuriatingly abrasive, allowing you to root for three guys who are actually kind of scumbags. Harris is great, albeit a little underused you get the vague feeling that a good deal of his work wound up on the cutting room floor. Rob Corddry and Rebel Wilson also do some good work in their respective scenes.

Michael Bay's brightly-colored hyperkinetic style has always worked beautifully against the backdrop of Miami; 'Pain & Gain' is no exception. Bay's choices almost all work. He relies heavily on voiceover narration from each of his characters, a device I usually dislike but that works wonderfully in helping flesh out his characters. He flashes bits of text onscreen as a conceit in fact, one of the funniest moments in the film comes from an onscreen reminder that you are still watching a true story.

It's not a perfect movie Bay still has a less-than-progressive attitude toward his female characters and the film's final act degenerates a bit into a messy whirlwind of violent activity. Still, it's probably the best movie that Bay has ever made a wildly entertaining and surprisingly effective piece of cinema that turns a lurid true tale into a compelling two hours.

4 out of 5

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