True crime tale is quirky and character-driven

Movie criminals usually are so smart.

Maybe it’s because Hollywood likes to glorify the “bad boy” or maybe it’s just to give the hero a worthy adversary, but crooks in movies usually are criminal masterminds who, if they fail, do so because of one tiny slip up.

That’s not the case in “Pain & Gain,” which features three of the biggest lunkheads to ever pull off a job. And the only reason they succeed as long as they do is a combination of dumb luck, neglect and institutional racism.

It’s not the kind of movie that audiences have come to expect from Michael Bay. It’s quirky and character-driven and Bay’s tendency to linger on pretty things, whether it’s the perfectly toned bodies of Miami or the excesses of wealth, fits the mindset of the main characters. It’s not quite as smart as it thinks it is, but “Pain & Gain” is a better movie than anyone has a right to expect from the maker of the “Transformers” flicks.

“Pain & Gain” is based on a true story, and Bay’s pedigree and the casting of movie stars like Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson as the criminals had many fearing the movie would glorify their actions.

That doesn’t happen. Those actors and Anthony Mackie help make these thugs less repulsive, but the movie doesn’t turn them into anti-heroes. Wahlberg hasn’t played this desperate and delusional since he was Dirk Diggler in the second half of “Boogie Nights.”

Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo is a personal trainer who sees his body as an exemplar of the American Dream – anything is possible, even perfect pecs, if you just work hard enough. Financial success doesn’t come as easy as reducing his body fat, though, no matter how many Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong) infomercials he watches and motivational seminars he attends.

Instead, he decides the way to achieve the American Dream is to find someone who has achieved it, kidnap him and steal his stuff. He has the perfect target in Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a half-Colombian/half-Jewish businessman who is one of his fitness clients. And to help him execute his plan, he recruits Paul Doyle (Johnson), an ex-con who’s found God but hasn’t lost his penchant for cocaine; and Adrian Doorbal (Mackie), a man who drinks a cocktail of breast milk and steroids to help him achieve his goal of 2 percent body fat.

After a couple of bumbling failures, they kidnap Victor, but he isn’t a cooperative victim and he’s even harder to kill. The taser him, torture him, set him afire and run over him in their car but somehow Victor lives. Only problem is that when a Colombian is found tortured in Miami, the cops assume it’s drug-related, and no one takes seriously his rantings about bodybuilder ninjas trying to kill him, so for awhile the trio gets to enjoy the spoils of their crime.

Things get so ridiculous that at one point, Bay puts a graphic up on screen, “This is still a true story.”

Wahlberg captures that perverted interpretation of the American Dream that sees Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in “Scarface” as a rags-to-riches tale to strive for and is willing to do anything to achieve it. He makes Lugo compelling without being particularly likeable. It’s a deft balancing act.

Johnson and Mackie are equally good as the other parts of this inept trio, and the movie is filled with juicy character roles, including Rebel Wilson as Doorbal’s medical aide and future wife, Ed Harris as a laconic investigator Victor hires to prove his case and Michael Rispoli as a porn king who becomes a second target of the trio.

But no one stands out like Shalhoub’s Victor, who is too arrogant not to reveal that he knows the kidnappers’ identities, too stubborn to give them what they want and too tenacious to let them get away with it. Harris’ Ed Du Bois tells him he’s a hard client to like, but he’s a great character to watch.

With its use of on-screen graphics and other visual tricks, “Pain & Gain” at its best looks like a glossier, day-glo version of a Tony Scott film. And only a director who’s made as much money as Bay has for Paramount would be able to get the budget necessary to bring this oddball tale to the screen.

In that case, at least something positive has come from those “Transformers” tales.