Michael Bay’s first movie, Bad Boys, opened worldwide in 1995, introducing audiences to his style of flashily frenetic editing and deafening explosions, matched with awesomely moronic storytelling and dialogue. His brand of making louder, thrilling and infinitely stupid action movies was marked from the beginning.
Meanwhile, at around the same time, a horrific crime was unfolding in Miami (the eventual setting of Bay’s Bad Boys II): three bodybuilders kidnapped and tortured a client from their gym, taking over his estate and bank account, and bullying their victim from turning them in. The efforts of a private investigator and the excessive, self-destructive actions of the “Sun Gym Gang,” who left a trail of bodies behind them, lead to their capture.
Now, Bay is returning to the 90s with Pain & Gain, a black comedy depicting the crimes with, if we’re to believe the movie, a great deal of accuracy (based, apparently, on a three-part series that ran in Miami New Times in 1999). This true life story becomes so grotesque at times that, at one point, a subtitle admirably flashes across the screen that reads “THIS IS STILL A TRUE STORY.”
Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, an under-talented but ultra-buff gym rat whose love for crime movies and desire to get ahead lead him to plan the abduction of one of his wealthiest clients. He turns to an imposing but emotional, vulnerable ex-con (Dwayne Johnson, never better) and a gym colleague (Anthony Mackie, reliably great) to assist him. The three have muscular super strength but little intelligence, as their plan goes south in wild and wildly disgusting ways.
Bay does away with the strobe-like editing for the most part and, for the first time since The Island (his best movie), lets the story and characters draw you in long before the carnage takes over. The early scenes and the initial attempts at the heist are so engaging, I thought Bay had pulled it off. Unfortunately, like most of his films, it’s overlong and stuffed with scenes so cartoonish and dumb in offensive, cringe-inducing ways, he pummels a morbidly fascinating crime story.
The first sign the film is heading in a bad direction is a seminar that Luco attends, held by a sleazy, implausible self-help guru, played overboard by Ken Jeong; for a movie that insists what you’re seeing actually happened, it plays as falsely and over the top as any scene from Transformers.
As a depiction of an especially horrific crime, Bay shows zero sensitivity or restraint, though, come to think of it, those are two words I have NEVER associated with Michael Bay. Littering his macho male fantasy movies with corpses is one thing but here, he turns a shocking caper with real victims into a crass music video that doesn’t know how or when to end. Bay also shows more contempt for overweight people than the characters ever do.
In the film’s defense, it’s mostly entertaining, until the second hour, when I felt like Bay was trying to bludgeon me. Wahlberg and Johnson are excellent, giving even their most absurd scenes a conviction that is layered and even touching. Yet, as their plans unravel and their actions become truly monstrous, I grew tired of watching them, let alone root for them as “anti-heroes.”
Some will view this as a comeback for Bay and they should. After three gigantic, idiotically offensive (but ludicrously popular) Transformers movies, even a mediocre movie would be a giant step up for him. Pain & Gain is better than that and I was impressed by Wahlberg and especially Johnson’s ability with pitch-black comedy. Unfortunately, the movie painfully pulls a muscle, even as its stars never do.
‘Pain & Gain’
Rated R / 130 Min.