Michael Bay is the Nickelback of movies. His films are loud, shallow, overly sexual and generally unintelligent, yet somehow he still manages to pump out hit after hit. His last few films, the Transformers trilogy, are arguably the peak of the man’s flaunting of the inverse relationship between a movie’s IQ level and its Box Office potential. I still maintain that Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen stands as the worst true Blockbuster of all time (Batman & Robin would have taken the title had it not tanked at the Box Office and subsequently killed the Batman franchise for nearly a decade). Perhaps it’s not so surprising that the movie that many critics are dubbing Bay’s most intelligent film to date was met with the man’s lowest ever opening weekend gross. All of Bay’s usual traits are visible in Pain & Gain, but a set of entertaining performances from Wahlberg and Johnson combined with the remarkably true-story subject matter come together to form a refreshingly entertaining bumbling-criminal flick.
The Plot: 7/10
A trio of bodybuilders in Florida get caught up in an extortion ring and a kidnapping scheme that goes terribly wrong.
Michael Bay has proved on many occasions that a complicated story doesn’t necessarily translate to a smart story. After all, Revenge of the Fallen had a fairly elaborate plot and we all know how that turned out. Pain & Gain, on the other hand, is perhaps the first example I can think of for the director in which the amount of moving parts is a good thing. The kidnapping plot itself only occupies about half of the run time, the rest being devoted to the related fallout. The fact that all of this is a true story makes the entire experience quite a bit more interesting, though adherence to the real life events led to a longer length than the movie is able to justify for itself.
The Writing: 6/10
Now let’s remind ourselves that this is Michael Bay we’re talking about, so if there’s anything that you can expect from the writing here it’s a large amount of unnecessary and largely ineffective comic relief. That being said, I was expecting much less from the script than I ended up seeing. A large amount of the credit for the jokes that actually land go to the acting talent involved, but it can at least be said that the writing itself doesn’t get in the way too often. Some of the lamer comic relief comes in the form of Anthony Mackie’s character, who is the closest the movie comes to a reincarnation of Shia LaBeouf’s mom in the Transformers movies.
The biggest thing that impressed me from a writing standpoint was the use of multiple perspectives in the way of voice-overs. Each character gets their own turn in the spotlight, along with the opportunity to explain some of their back stories and thus giving each character a much more fleshed-out feeling. The biggest “Bay” quality that this highlightes though is how sexist Bay is with his character choices. The only female character who gets a voice-over is a ditzy Russian stripper named Sorina, aka your typical Bay Girl. Rebel Wilson is basically used as a walking, talking fat-joke for all of us to laugh at. Which one is the more offensive stereotype, you tell me.
The Acting: 8/10
By award season standards I wouldn’t necessarily score the movie this high on an acting level, but I stand by my score here if nothing else because the movie wouldn’t have worked without the presences of the acting talent involved. Mark Wahlberg is always fun to watch when he’s at his most clueless, and the combination of that with his meathead character makes for an entertaining lead. I’ve already voiced my issues with Mackie, but I was much happier with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the coke-fiend-turned-Jesus-freak-turned-coke-fiend weak link of the crew. Johnson just has this mix of lovable tenderness and physical power that makes him perfect for roles like this, like if you were to mix The Hulk with a Teddy Bear.
On the supporting end, I was a big disappointed by Tony Shalhoub as the kidnapee, Victor Kershaw. I know that Shhaloub is given an inherently unlikable character, but he never feels like anything more than a rich asshole who merits neither sympathy nor contempt. I was much more of a fan of Ed Harris as the Private Investigator Victor hires to bring justice to his kidnappers (I would consider this a spoiler, but the fact that it is shown in the trailers themselves should classify it as fair game). I may have expected Harris to be a bit more ruthless, but his position as the one decent person in the entire movie helps his cause quite a bit.
The Action: 7/10
As one of the lowest budget films Mr. Bay has made in quite some time, his usual reliance on explosions and special effects was never going to be enough to give him a pass in Pain & Gain. Because of that, the action element of the film isn’t even close to the same levels as his past projects, leading to a much more character-centric focus than his comfort zone usually allows for. That being said, the action is less of an explosive sort here and more of a bumbling criminal sort, and I for one found the results more entertaining than simply watching gangs of giant robots clobbering each other for two hours.
On the other hand, some of the elements you’re used to seeing from a Michael Bay movie are still here, for better or for worse. The addition of Lugo’s “Free Gym Memberships for Strippers”which I maintain is a brilliant idea, gives the director more than enough opportunity to parade around the army of scantily clad, well-endowed women that fans of his have come to expect. If this alone is enough to make you want to see this movie, then you won’t be disappointed (especially seeing as Bay makes repeated usage of the freedoms of the film’s R rating).
The Verdict: 7.0/10 – Good
+ Wahlberg and Johnson make for extremely entertaining leads
+ The True-Story basis adds a level of depth to the film that Bay’s movies usually lack
- Bay’s usual sexism, pseudo-racism and overall lack of intelligent writing is still present
- The movie is a bit overlong and might get a bit too dark for some in the second half
Rotten Tomatoes: 48%
The Code is Zeek: 3.5/5
Devil’s Advocates: 3/5
The Focused Filmographer: 2.5/5