Wonders never cease. Here’s Michael Bay, director of the Transformers movies and various other crimes against cinema, taking time out to helm a caper flick that has an actual story and characters and all that stuff. At $25 million, Pain & Gain’s budget is about one-eighth the size of Bay’s usual for films. It has only one explosion. And it’s the best thing he’s ever done. Granted, that’s not saying all that much, but it’s something.
Mark Wahlberg portrays Daniel Lugo, a personal trainer at a Miami gym in 1994 who grows sick of being constantly broke. He recruits his workout buddy Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and an ex-con named Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to kidnap a wealthy bastard of a gym member named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and convince him to sign over all his money and possessions to them. Multiple characters take turns as voiceover narrators and give their points of view, including the devoutly Christian but cocaine-addicted Paul, the nasty and unyielding Victor, and a retired cop-turned-private eye (Ed Harris) who tries to make sense of these characters and their half-baked schemes.
The movie is based on Pete Collins’ series of articles in Miami New Times detailing the amazing story of a group of bodybuilders who hatched an astonishingly successful kidnapping scheme. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script takes many liberties with what actually happened, but many of the movie’s most outrageous details turn out to be true. Where Bay’s films are typically at their worst when they try for comedy, this one is intentionally funny in several instances. Most strikingly, the main characters (who in real life were rather sharp as criminals go) come across as fools, not just because their crimes are stupidly executed, but because they believe that bigger muscles and fatter wallets make them better men and better Americans. Given all the macho crap and pandering patriotism that Bay’s other movies have indulged in, this is a huge departure.
There are issues that prevent this movie from actually rising to the rank of a good thriller. What should have been a neat little caper flick goes on entirely too long at 130 minutes. When Bay tries to conjure genuine horror late in the film (a scene when a couple of people who aren’t supposed to die wind up dead at the hands of our main characters), his attempt just sits there. The actors here have all been better elsewhere. The material wants to be a satire of meatheads who believe in the American Dream to an unhealthy extent, and though Bay seems to want to go with it, he doesn’t have the acuity or the chops to pull it off.
Still, the mere fact that Bay wants to tell a story like this is encouraging. He doesn’t look to be leaving the business of making highly profitable $200 million piles of insults to our intelligence anytime soon, but if he ever does wriggle out from that, he may yet develop into a filmmaker worth taking seriously. Stranger things have happened.
Pain & Gain
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, and Dwayne Johnson. Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on Pete Collins’ magazine articles. Rated R.