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After more than half a decade of making movies in which robots chaotically fight other robots, director Michael Bay has completely changed gears for his latest film, and while the dark crime comedy Pain & Gain is definitely a step in a new direction for the filmmaker, it is still clearly a Michael Bay movie…for better and for worse.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a dumb ex-con bodybuilder and personal trainer who grows tired of his life in the middle and tries to make a play for the “American dream.” Teaming up with two other meatheads, the steroid-addicted Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and reformed criminal and coke-head/born-again Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), he devises a plan to kidnap and extort one of his new clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a millionaire and all-around awful human being. Unfortunately for the trio of crooks, they learn too late that stupidity and crime is an awful combination.
Bolstered by the fact that it’s based on a true story, giving it a distinctive “stranger than fiction” feel, Pain & Gain deserves credit simply for being a unique, weird tale told in entertaining fashion. The characters are so legitimately stupid that the plot is constantly moving in unexpected ways, regularly veering off into scenes of pitch black comedy that make you question your moral center as you laugh. The movie thankfully never forces the audience to empathize with its dumber-than-a-mailbox leads, but the three leads have great chemistry as a group and when split off into pairs, such as scenes where Adrian encourages Paul to try drinking steroid-enhanced breast milk and Daniel assures Paul that once all the violence and madness is over they’ll go camping together.
Continuing his emergence as one of the most entertaining actors currently working in Hollywood, Johnson puts on the best performance we’ve seen from him yet, completely outshining all of his co-stars and singlehandedly making the film worthwhile. Given a part that amounts to more than just being a pile of muscle and a tough attitude (which he’s been incredibly successful doing over the last few years), he completely loses himself and brings the audience along for the ride. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deserve credit for even writing a coked-out Jesus freak character who's the perfect balance of dumb and angry, but once Johnson gets going you no longer see The Rock and just see Paul Doyle.
Though it may be a deviation in terms of tone, plot and scale for Bay, Pain & Gain still features many of the regular issues present in his other films. His depiction of female characters range from under-developed to deplorable, with Rebel Wilson only onscreen to make crude sex jokes, and Bar Paly playing a dumb immigrant-turned-stripper who is more of a caricature than a character. The movie also hits a dragging point in all three acts that leaves the overall story feeling about a half-hour too long, padded by an aggressive use of voice-over (which we hear from every major character), scenes that don’t add anything to the plot but are either left in because they may have happened in the actual story, or because they allow the director to be his overly flashy, indulgent self. The film as a whole is certainly a change of pace for the filmmaker, but it’s hard to say there’s any real growth.
Credit where credit is due, Bay could have used the time he had making Pain & Gain to make another Transformers movie or equally mindless action film filled with explosions and cleavage, but he took a risk and tried something new, which is commendable by itself. The final product is a mixed bag and you may not like yourself for being entertained by it, but at least it’s original.