“Pain and Gain,” the new Michael Bay crime movie, has a few things going for it., First, there isn’t a robot in sight. Secondly, a great cast who bring serious star power and third, it doesn’t really feel like a Michael Bay film. And by that I mean there’s only one shot of the three leads walking away from a slow motion explosion.
Near the beginning a voiceover says, “Unfortunately, this is based on a true story.” It’s the real-life tale of three Miami-based body builders (Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie) chasing the American Dream. Pumped up and steroid crazy they abduct a prominent local businessman (Tony Shalhoub). They beat and torture the self-made millionaire until he signs over all his wealth—houses, cars, boats and money. The story eventually becomes so outlandish Bay flashes up a graphic in the last half hour reminding us that this is “still a true story.”
This is a seriously weird movie. It’s Bay working with a tiny—for him—budget of just $26 million. The guy has made commercials that cost more than that, but has delivered the darkest comedy—imagine if the Coen Brothers did gruesome slapstick—to come down the pike in a while.
Playing somewhere like an episode of “CSI: Miami” performed by the Three Stooges, the story of a trio of greedy dumb criminals—and they don’t get much stupider than this gang who couldn’t shoot straight—is violent, funny and unpredictable. The only thing you know for sure is nothing is going to go as planned.
It’s not understated, but then did you expect a movie directed by Bay and starring the world’s most famous wrestler to be subtle? Any idea of building a thematic treatise around the corrupting powers of he American Dream of wealth and power is thrown out the window early on in favor of Bay’s fixation with the absurd aspects of the story.
Instead it’s a wild ride that cruises along for over two hours—which is maybe twenty minutes too much—with the usual Bay touches—negligible roles for women and stylish photography that makes every shot look like it was ripped from a GQ layout—featuring likeable actors playing unlikable people.
It’s tough to make a funny movie about people who heartlessly kill innocent people. Bay cast well, finding actors who bring goodwill with them, and keep the audience on side even as the tone of the movie turns dark—or as dark as Bay can ever get with his stylish, glittering images.
As the ringleader of this funky bunch, Wahlberg plays a guy whose “heroes are all self-made: Rocky, Scarface and the guys from ‘The Godfather’.” He’s stupid, but doesn’t know it, and Mark shows how being a dim bulb with grandiose ideas can turn dangerous.
After a long series of unrewarding supporting roles Anthony Mackie gets a chance to shine and Shalhoub does impressive work, but the stand out is Johnson who finally has a role that marries his physicality to his impeccable comic timing.
“Pain and Gain” doesn’t scrimp on the violence and the nastiness of the story, but tempers it with some of the best gore gags this side of Tarantino. Case in point, Wahlberg ordering The Rock to “grill these fingerprints” off some decapitated hands. If you can stomach that, buy a ticket. If not, the next “Transformers” movie is set to be released next year.