For Michael Bay, scaling back to make the dark crime comedy “Pain & Gain” was a smart move. For most of his career, Bay has taken on the biggest of summer blockbusters centered on giant robots, islands full of clones and Armageddon itself. Yet his first film, the comparatively modest “Bad Boys” with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, remains his best. “Pain & Gain” is a deliberate return to Bay’s roots (if a single movie qualifies as roots), with a reported budget of $25 million.
That’s about one-tenth the cost of a "Transformers" movie. “Pain” is also a return to the same city as “Bad Boys,” with Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson leading a gang of Miami bodybuilders who turn to crime.
All this is not to say that Bay has succeeded in making a good movie. “Pain” is still a bad movie. It’s just not the same bad movie Bay has been making for the last 15 years, and that has to count for something.
The script, credited to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is based on a true story so twisted and outlandish not even Bay could screw it up entirely. We get frequent glimpses of the stronger film this might have been if it hadn’t been sidetrack by Bay’s crass views and boorish humor.
Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, an assistant manager at a Miami gym where steroid injections are regularly distributed in the locker room.
“I believe in fitness,” Lugo declares at the outset, echoing the famous opening line from “The Godfather”: “I believe in America.”
Along with Rocky and Scarface, “all those guys from ‘The Godfather,” count among Daniel’s heroes. Daniel is a firm subscriber to the American dream, so he can’t comprehend why his bank account doesn’t reflect his magnificent muscle mass. He worked hard to sculpt his physique, so he deserves to be rich. It’s within his rights to take wealth from someone less deserving.
“Michael Corleone didn’t become the Godfather by folding towels,” Daniel reasons.
Daniel sets his sights on one of his gym clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a scrawny millionaire who owns the Schlotzsky’s Deli franchise near the airport. (Schlotzsky’s Deli is a reminder the story takes place in the ’90s.) Daniel hatches a scheme to kidnap Kershaw, and he recruits two of his gym co-workers, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Johnson). Doyle signs on, even though he found Jesus during a prison stint and frequently states he doesn’t want to serve another term.
After several botched attempts, a few involving Halloween ninja costumes, the trio do kidnap Kershaw and coerce him into signing over all his assets. Although the movie downplays the physical torture that the real victim (not named Victor Kershaw) suffered, the criminals eventually decide they would be safer if the man were dead. They soon learn they are even more incompetent murderers than they were kidnappers.
Things spin out of control from there.
Bay has described “Pain & Gain” as a character study, and it probably does come as a relief to him that these characters get to say more than, “Run! Run! Run!” Johnson, who has surprising depths as an actor, gives a nuanced comic performance, and Wahlberg is a bit more manic than usual.
Unfortunately, Bay’s idea of a character study is to have the characters constantly state their beliefs and goals, what they are going to do next and how they feel about what just happened. Nearly all characters, major and minor, take turns doing the narration, so that “Pain” becomes possibly the most voiced-over movie ever made.
Characters also state their own traits in the bluntest terms. We know we are not meant to sympathize with Shalhoub’s character, because he approaches an employee washing his car and snipes, “You migrant workers suck.”
Bay hasn’t tamed his hyperkinetic camerawork and editing. But this time, Bay occasionally uses his over-amplified techniques for comic effect. When the story reaches one of its strangest and sickest developments, the image freezes and the subtitle “This is still a true story” appears.
Shockingly enough, the overall narrative and many plot points indeed adhere to the facts. Some things have been simplified, which is the nature of any movie that squeezes several months of reality into two hours. Lugo and Doorbal are real people now sitting on Florida’s Death Row. Their gang had more than three members, though, and Johnson’s character is a composite of two of them.
The portrayal of the victims, Kershaw and a later target played by Michael Rispoli, who meets a more horrendous fate, also has drifted from reality, and here is where Bay’s appetites ruin his chances to make film worthy of the material.
In Bay’s worldview, every person who might qualify as an other – whether by race, creed, age, income level or weight (especially weight) – must be portrayed at worst as grotesque or at best as moronic. Kershaw’s Judaism is draped about him like a garish cloak. Background characters aren’t exempt. The man who shares Kershaw’s hospital room is grossly obese and has explosive diarrhea, because overweight people in Bay’s movies exist to be humiliated.
An exception is Rebel Wilson, because the heavyset actress is currently too popular to be ridiculed. She plays Mackie’s girlfriend and gets to humiliate him for a well-known side effect of steroid use. Bay loves these kinds of jokes. The only character treated with dignity is a private investigator played by Ed Harris, probably because Ed Harris plays him.
Bay also positions “Pain” as a satire of the pursuit of the American dream. This intent is hard to miss, because American flags are everywhere and Wahlberg sometimes gives a speech in front of one, like “Patton” with free weights. Satire requires subtlety, a word that won’t be found in Michael Bay’s dictionary.
Still, “Pain & Gain” is more free-wheeling and less patronizing than Olive Stone’s similarly themed, and similarly violent, satire “Natural Born Killers” (Stone also struggles with subtlety). “Pain & Gain” offers evidence that Bay could find a real voice as a filmmaker to replace his megaphone, but massive budgets aren’t the only excesses he’ll have to shake.
“Pain & Gain”
Rated R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Who’s in it: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub
What it’s about: Three Miami bodybuilders (Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackie) with low IQs and lower scruples kidnap a millionaire sub shop owner (Shalhoub) and plan to steal his money and property. When they fail to kill him, things spin terribly out of control.
Verdict: After nearly 20 years of blockbuster budgets, giant robots, islands full of clones and wall-to-wall visual effects, Michael Bay makes a deliberate attempt to return to the low-budget, low-tech days of his first (and best) movie, “Bad Boys.” He may have cut the budget, but the excesses of his crass views and boorish humor remain. Nearly every character is treated as an object of ridicule, the victims more so than the criminals. The true story is so twisted that Bay can’t screw it up completely, and Johnson gives a nuanced comic performance amid the bedlam.