Taking a break from the Transformers movies, Michael Bay chose to do a “smaller” movie about a real life series of crimes committed by a group of Miami bodybuilders in the mid 90’s with Pain & Gain. The movie answers the age old question of “What’s worse than a bad Michael Bay action movie?” Answer: A bad Michael Bay movie with no action whatsoever.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Danny Lugo, a toolbag of a personal trainer who is constantly searching for “The American Dream”, which to him is being rich and self made, like Scarface or Michael Corleone. When a new client, Victor Kernshaw (played by Tony Shalhoub), comes to the Sun Gym and turns out to be loaded, Lugo recruits his friend Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and newly arrived ex-con, Paul (Dwayne Johnson), to kidnap and extort Kernshaw for everything he owns. Things quickly spiral out of control when the guys blow all their money on drugs, houses, cars and women and need to find another rich douche to extort.
The worst part of any Michael Bay movie is always the extremely broad, and usually offensive, stereotypes that substitute for characters and the awful attempts at humor. These are usually at least balanced out by over the top, ridiculous action sequences but that is the fatal flaw of Pain & Gain, it’s all horrible Bay characters, dialogue and humor. There are 2 foot chases that you could call action sequences but they are incredibly brief, leaving the over two hour run time filled with ugly characters doing ugly things that are supposed to be hilarious (or at least Bay must find them hilarious). You’re not supposed to like the trio of kidnappers, with the possible exception of The Rock, but from the first instant you meet him, Wahlberg’s Lugo is an absolute douche that you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with, let alone 2 hours, which makes the movie that much more of a slog to get through. The Rock’s character provides the most consistent humor as a sweet but dumb born again Christian who slowly backpedals to his old, coke snorting ways and he has some good scenes with Shalhoub. There are a couple of funny bits sprinkled throughout, like when Lugo starts mentoring the kids of his new neighborhood after taking Kernshaw’s house and the first couple of failed attempts to nab Kernshaw while dressed as ninjas but most of the movie is filled with that particular brand of Bay humor where he thinks the louder someone yells and the more offensive a stereotype they are, the funnier it is. Not even Ed Harris can save the movie when he shows up as a private investigator late in the second half of the movie.
Even though the movie is set in the mid 90’s, it doesn’t really play with or make fun of the setting, with the exception of a pretty good *69 joke and Ken Jeong as a parody of infomercial star, Tommy Vu. Stylistically, Bay has a kitchen sink approach in that he tries everything to make the movie seem “cool” and “edgy” by switching randomly to hand held camera shots, dropping title cards in at random times and having the characters constantly narrating. The latter is especially annoying because it’s obviously a crutch Bay is using so he doesn’t have to do any actual character development in the movie, he can just have the characters explain what they are thinking and feeling in the narration. The hand held and title cards are also not used enough to add to the movies style and instead are just jarring whenever it pops up.
Despite what you think about Transformers movies, Bay has given us some of the best action movies of all time. Anyone who made The Rock gets a free pass for a lot of things but Bay needs to stick to what he’s good at, which is loud, dumb, crowd pleasing action. He is not a director who should be doing character studies or comedies, which is why Pain & Gain is pretty much a failure. There are a couple of funny scenes and Dwayne Johnson and Ed Harris manage to keep the movie from being a total loss but it’s definitely only worth possibly a rent later on and I would say probably my least favorite Bay movie now, yes, even worse than Pearl Harbor.