The four words that can chill this movie critic to the bone are: Directed by Michael Bay. Remember, this is the guy who depicted the attack on Pearl Harbor from the point of view of the bomb. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t invited to any early screenings of Bay’s latest, Pain and Gain. A studio rep informed me that the filmmaker “did not opt for a Rolling Stone review.” Ha. Like that’s his decision.
So, heading to my local multiplex, I laid down 12 bucks for a ticket. For a second, I worried that Bay might have sent Optimus Prime to the box office on orders to crush me, but that’s too Hollywood even for Bay.
Confession: I harbored a mad hope that Pain and Gain, made for a scant $26 million (the snack budget on his Transformers films), might actually show a different side to this filmmaker. He once claimed he wanted to make a small, personal film that would reveal the real Bay. And, I’m here to report, that Pain and Gain is that film. It’s dumb, shallow, deeply cynical and and creatively bereft.
Pain and Gain is a true story, sort of. The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is based from a series of Pete Collins articles, originally published in the Miami New Times, about the Sun Gym gang. In the mid-1990’s these dim-bulb Florida bodybuilders, led by gym manager Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), came up with something rare for them (and Bay) – an idea. Kidnap and extort a rich client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). To help, Danny brings in two besties: personal trainer Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and ex-con Paul (Dwayne Johnson), an alcoholic recovering with the help of Jesus. It’s a promising story that deserved more than a Bay botch job. Good actors are trapped in Bay’s toxic bubble, forced to make farce out of a scary, real-life situation. In between scenes of the muscleheads torturing their victim, Bay indulges his taste for treating women as sluts and grisly brutality as a nifty excuse for a cheap laugh. Pain and Gain is personal all right. You leave these characters with the distinct impression that they’re Bay’s kind of people. But I did learn something from Pain and Gain. The next time Bay bars me from screening, I’ll realize he’s really doing me a favor.