The phrase “A Michael Bay film” has a certain stigma amongst moviegoers. Since his debut with 1995’s Bad Boys, Bay’s films have all followed a rather narrow path with one goal in mind: senseless action. However, that isn’t necessarily an insult. While his style doesn’t get much recognition with the Academy, everyone loves to sit back, turn off their thinking caps, and enjoy an exciting escape. True, he isn’t getting any buzz at your local art house cinema, but the films of Michael Bay more often than not have an abundant supply of entertainment value.
Pain & Gain sees Bay take a bit of a step away from his bread and butter of polished, fun action and dip a toe into the world of dark comedy. Based on a true story, the story follows three pea-brained muscle-heads who decide that the ticket to happiness and the American dream is to simply kidnap a wealthy member of the gym where they work and get him to sign over his assets. Of course the plan goes awry and you’re left with three morons trying to play the part of criminal masterminds. If we’ve learned anything from the history of film, inept criminals are pretty much a lock when it comes to comedy.
The biggest strength of Pain & Gain is its performances. There’s a certain degree of difficulty in playing a convincing fool, and Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie manage to bring comedy and even some sympathy to a trio of kidnappers, not generally the most likable of professions. I could attempt to describe it, but I think it is best summed up in a scene in which Wahlberg manages to convince his cohorts into taking part in the kidnapping with the line “Trust me, I’ve seen a lot of movies.” Complimenting the kidnappers is Tony Shalhoub as their wholly unlikable victim, as well as on of my personal favorites, Ed Harris as a private eye. In a story where it’s so difficult to figure out who you should be rooting for, the over-the-top personas of both the kidnappers and the kidnapped leave you too entertained to worry about picking a side.
Where Pain & Gain falls short is that it doesn’t take these huge personalities anywhere. What could have been an interesting character study is left at its bare bones, without ever digging beyond the framework of a few boneheads getting in way over their heads. After three straight movies of playing with CGI toys, Michael Bay seems to have forgotten how to work with regular old, non-transforming, people. While we get to see what the criminals do, and how they do it, there is almost no time spent explaining why. Bay is himself caught in over his head with a story where the motivation could be even more interesting than the action itself.
This all brings us back to the original point: Michael Bay is not a master of nuance, nor is he an expert in storytelling. For nearly two decades, Bay has excelled in one, and only one element of film: entertainment. And judging Pain & Gain on that curve, it most certainly gets the job done. Even when left fully explored and examined, this true story is most certainly interesting, and the chemistry among the cast keeps things moving right along, despite an excessive 2 hour and 10 minute run time. It may be less than intellectual, but this is a movie where that’s kind of the point all along.
My Rating: 2.5 Stars