Well well well...
Who knew that Michael Bay still had one ok film in him?!
Based on a true story, Pain & Gain sees Mark Wahlberg's Daniel Lugo come up with a plan to kidnap some obnoxious rich dude and steal all his dough with the help of a couple of other bodybuilders (played by Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie) and soon finding himself trying to desperately contain the damage he's caused. The film is big, dumb, bloated and completely over the top. And, you know what? That's exactly what it needed to be. After all, most of it is seen through the eyes of our main characters, slightly unhinged, not very smart fellas, so the film's overblown style does make sense. Unlike with the Transformers movies, you've got context that makes sense here. Plus Bay captures the goofy nature of 90's action movies really well. The result is basically Scarface meets Pumping Iron crossed with a little The Whole Nine Yards. I say that because the film really does play on various levels: it's a comedy, for sure, but one which slowly gets darker and darker to reveal what it's really about. Originally, it's unclear as to what Bay is trying to say: is he celebrating Wahlberg's plan? Are we meant to sympathise with these guys? No. This is essentially a fable on steroids and Bay, for once, is surprisingly self aware and gets that these guys are just not all there in terms of both brains and morals. Yes, they each have their charming traits: Johnson seems like a nice enough guy when he's not a coke-head, Wahlberg's friendly enough when he's in his element (helping people with their training), Mackie seems harmless enough and shows vulnerability. That said, they each have a dark side and can get pretty scary at times.
To give you an idea: one scene sees Dwayne Johnson cooking disembodied hands on a barbecue outside. Hands that Wahlberg axed off earlier. Meanwhile, Mackie is trying to literally cut blood stains out of his carpet.
Pretty messed-up, pretty dumb.
And that's what, for me, works best in Pain & Gain: the dark comedy aspect. The film is a comedy from the very beginning but until it really goes all-out and starts losing its mind, it's really hit-and-miss. The first half hour is particularly underwhelming as you sit there listening to about 12 narrators (some of them characters you haven't even met yet in the movie) tell their own side of the story, confused about who to root for and about what the movie is trying to do. You've got people screwing on cars, dim-witted, overly made-up strippers walking around provocatively in every shot, Rebel Wilson churning out dick jokes every line she gets, it's all a bit crass and hard to warm up to. After that, when the plot finally gets going, it's all uphill from there. Tony Shalhoub does a good job as the kinda cartoonish, sleazy victim, Ken Jeong has a shockingly relatively restrained cameo appearance as a motivational speaker and Ed Harris brings some welcome class to the movie. It all sort of comes together into something that makes sense. By the end, even if parts of the movie come off as a bit misguided or too silly, you'll still feel like Pain & Gain achieved exactly what it wanted to achieve and Michael Bay, weirdly, was the best man for the job. The only other criticism I would give the film is that, as with pretty much all of Bay's flicks, it's a little bit too long but you're never bored, he does keep the action coming at a good pace at least.
Overall, Pain & Gain was a nice surprise: a Michael Bay film that a) doesn't suck and b) actually works really well as an action-packed dark comedy. The cast does really well, the film looks the part and, as dumb as it is, it's still a hard movie to dislike.
A fun, twisted, pumped farce.