Subtlety, along with plot and character development, has never been Michael Bay’s specialty. Pain & Gain, his latest opus, is the sort of movie where we discover Anthony Mackie’s character has a thing for chunky women because Mark Wahlberg’s character says something along the lines of, “I know you have a thing for chunky women.”
But it’s impossible to deny that Bay is a master at crafting big, bombastic, over-the-top blockbusters, and P&G is a refreshing (not often a Bay-centric adjective) jaunt back to the mid-1990s, before the Transformers series and its soul-crushing reliance on CGI. This isn’tBad Boys or The Rock, but it’s the closest we’re gonna get.
It’s a simple enough story on paper: Three muscly guys with no bucks and no plan decide to rob a rich businessman, and chaos ensues. Fortunately, it’s the kind of madness that’s tailor-made for the big screen; unfortunately, Bay has to pause the action near the 100-minute mark to remind us that “Yes, This All Really Happened.” Always with the lack of subtlety.
Anyone who’s seen the trailer probably assumes that it’s equal parts boobs, muscles and explosions, but one of the most enjoyable aspects about Pain & Gain is its pointed lack of focus on sex. Minus one moment where Wahlberg makes what appears to be reluctant outdoor love to a stripper (and Mackie’s romantic endeavors with Rebel Wilson, which are never taken seriously), it’s all weightlifting and scheming. The men of Pain & Gain are not interested in women; they’re into themselves.
If only that sort of relentless, narcissistic self-love could be maintained throughout the movie’s unnecessarily lengthy run-time (129 minutes). For the most part, Pain & Gain is a dark comedy. But there are moments where it seems like Bay can’t give up the black-and-white world view of his cookie-cutter action films; we’re force-fed occasional reminders that Wahlberg and his crew are bad guys, namely Ed Harris’ arrival in the second half as a private detective that we’re practically ordered to root for.
It never feels earned. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is wonderfully endearing as a born-again meathead, until the movie needs him to start doing cocaine and dating a stripper. Wahlberg is pleasant and inherently likeable in every scene, except the ones where he pressures his friends to commit murder. A more competent director might let his movie bask in the shades of grey, but Bay can’t resist forcefully shuffling our interpretations for the sake of clarifying “right” and “wrong.”
It’s hard not to compare it to The Informant!, a film that practically bathed in the odd complexities of Matt Damon’s deceptive snitch while painting him as both sympathetic and horrifyingly incompetent. It also told an outrageous story with such seriousness that comedy effortlessly flowed from its veins.
Pain & Gain‘s finest scenes come close to that mountaintop. A man’s head is crushed under a stray weight after a tussle with Mark Wahlberg, who responds to the shocking event by doing a set of bicep curls. The Rock, while soothing his swole friend’s jangled nerves, can’t help but compliment his excellent form.
In those moments, Pain & Gain soars. In the hands of a legitimate filmmaker with a taste for gallows humor, it could’ve been something truly special. But even Bay manages to turn an embarrassment of source material riches into an entertaining romp that’ll play on a loop in dorm rooms and frat houses for eternity.