Saying that Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain is the best thing the director has ever made is obviously saying very little since this is man who once filmed John Turturro being urinated on by a giant robot. With its relatively modest $25 million budget, Pain & Gain is — at least according to Bay — an attempt at making a smaller, more personal type of film. The results are hardly what you’d call quiet or restrained — often falling into the trap of Bay’s worst tendencies as a filmmaker, relying too much on sensory overload and juvenile gross-out gags. It’s a noisy, brash movie made by a man who’s made a fortune making loud, dumb crap. Thankfully, Pain & Gain is based on exactly the type of real-life story that’s the proper mix of absurd and stupid — so much so that it fits Bay’s overbearing style and main thematic concerns — muscles, bikinis, violence and dumb comedy — perfectly.
The film is based on a 1999 Miami New Times article, written by journalist Pete Collins, about Miami’s Sun Gym Gang, a trio of steroid-abusing bodybuilders who got caught up in theft, fraud, kidnapping, torture and, eventually, murder. Here, Bay has taken the story and turned it into a flimsy, warped look at the American Dream. Centrally, we follow Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg, channeling a bit of Dirk Diggler), a personal trainer whose only wish in life is too afford a giant lawn he can ride around on and mow. The only problem is that Daniel’s a bit of a sociopath, so the only way he can think to accomplish his goals is by kidnapping pompous, unlikable and filthy rich sandwich magnate Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). He recruits two co-workers — Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and fresh-from-prison, born-again Christian Paul (Dwayne Johnson) — to help him out.
Things soon become farcical — as the three are none too bright (they keep bungling the kidnapping, and can’t figure out how to kill Victor when the time comes) — and only succeed through sheer force of will. Much of the film plays like a more aggressive Coen Brothers picture, with the characters’ early success as criminal masterminds soon unraveling into a ridiculously botched bout of murder and mayhem. There’s a tonal shift at this point, as Pain & Gain turns into a violent and occasionally nasty black comedy (that it doesn’t back down from this nastiness like many black comedies is one of the film’s strengths — possibly simply because Bay is too tasteless to know better). But with this change in tone, the film remains grounded in reality, owing to its fact-based story. While certain aspects are trumped up for comedic effect, the film stays true to the basic facts — to the point that the proceedings get so absurd that (in the most playful bit of filmmaking in Bay’s career) the movie needs an intertitle to remind us that, yes, this is still a true story. A charismatic cast helps, too. This is the most charming Wahlberg’s been in years, while Johnson gets the kind of loose, carefree role he’s been missing out on since Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006). Sure, Bay still gets caught making bad decisions based on his immature sense of humor (one particular diarrhea joke is both loathsome and needless). Typically, the whole film could be shorn of about 20 minutes, and Bay’s über-stylization can be draining. But he’s finally made a movie and not a spectacle — and an entertaining one at that. Rated R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use.