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MOVIE REVIEW: Bay, Wahlberg, Johnson combine to make darkly funny 'Pain & Gain'

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Photo: Paramount Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie star in “Pain & Gain.”

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Photo: Paramount Anthony Mackie, Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson star in “Pain & Gain.”

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Photo: Paramount Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie star in “Pain & Gain.”

PAIN & GAIN

(R)

3 out of 4 stars

If "Pain & Gain" had been adapted from a darkly comic crime caper novel by Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen, you'd go, "Well, that makes sense. It takes a wild and fertile imagination to come up with something this outrageous, depraved, far-fetched and gut-busting funny. As it turns out, "P&G" is based on a series of articles by journalist Pete Collins that came shortly in wake of what could quite possibly be the most dunderheaded and ill-conceived/executed pair of crimes in American history.

In the interest of full-disclosure, the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely takes artistic liberties by creating a composite character or two and changing the names of some of the innocent others, but that's it. Everything else takes place pretty much as it did in the mid-'90s in the bizarre tropical crime capital of the Western world, aka, Miami.

You would think a movie like "P&G" -- with its oddball, limited genre-niche appeal and relative bargain-basement budget ($25 million) would be the work of a first or second-time director and distributed by an art-house/boutique studio, but again, no. It's from Michael Bay, the guy behind the "Transformers" franchise and other overblown, mindless giga-dollar action monstrosities. Bay stated earlier this year, "I'm extremely excited to simplify my film career this spring with a great character piece." Sounds like he finally got around to reading the reviews for his other films and thought an artistic/soul-purging was in order. It worked. This is Bay's best movie since "The Rock" from 1996.

Speaking of the Rock, "P&G" marks the finest performance to date from Dwayne Johnson, the former pro wrestler turned action star whose muscles do come into play here but they take on a secondary role to his previously unrealized acting skills. As third wheel Paul Doyle, Johnson plays an ex-con-turned-born-again-Christian that gets in way over his head and is riddled with guilt for the entire length of the film.

Like Bay and Johnson, Mark Wahlberg deferred his usual pricey salary for a percentage of the profits, probably in an effort to get Paramount to green-light such an oddball release. Recalling much of the clueless, yet driven misplaced confidence exhibited by his character in "Boogie Nights," Wahlberg takes the lead as Daniel Lugo -- a guy who wants to be rich but doesn't have the smarts or patience required to achieve his goal.

After serving a jail term for carrying out a confidence scam, Lugo took a job at Miami's Sun Gym, an independently operated exercise facility in Miami. Blessed with a silver tongue and backslapping, blustery charm, Lugo talked Sun's owner John Mese (Rob Corddry) into taking him on as a personal trainer with the promise he could triple membership -- which he did. The only problem was that it made Mese richer and netted Lugo what he felt was just a mere pittance.

Suffering from a severe case of wealth envy, Lugo hatched a moronic scheme to kidnap Vic Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub replacing Albert Brooks), one of the gym's wealthiest (and patently unlikeable) members and torture him until he signed over everything he owned to Lugo. In order to do this Lugo brought in Doyle and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), a former 98-pound weakling with male performance issues.

With a plan even a third-grader would consider brain-dead, Lugo and company nabbed Kershaw and kinda-sorta got what they wanted but what exactly happened during and after the kidnapping is best left explained by the movie.

As mentioned previously, the "Sun Gym Gang," as they were eventually christened, committed a second crime, one that made their first come off looking like a masterwork of criminal genius. To be clear, the second crime didn't involve kidnapping as such but rather another confidence scheme and Lugo made the mistake of pitching it to a self-made porn mogul (Michael Rispoli) who quickly, but politely backed away from the deal.

The toughest part about a movie like "P&G" at least from a marketing standpoint is in the selling of a movie full of unsavory characters and their bonehead escapades as a comedy to mainstream audiences. Because of the Bay, Wahlberg and Johnson brand names (and high flesh and violence quotients), "P&G" will probably do well and make more than a healthy profit in its first day of release. Its success might even persuade Bay to venture beyond the safe confines of blockbuster productions again and make another movie with wit, smarts and pitch-black humor. (Paramount)