Who knew Michael Bay had a sense of humor? For the better part of the past two decades, Hollywood’s poster boy for macho mayhem, shiny military hardware, and razzle-dazzle spectacle has come across as a slightly joyless filmmaker. His big-budget popcorn productions like Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and the Transformers films have always strained to give audiences an excess of bang for their buck, but you never got the sense that he could tell a joke. If anything, Bay seemed like the type of guy who was incapable of figuring out whether audiences were laughing with him or at him. But with Pain & Gain, his surprising true-crime comedy, Bay has finally decided to lighten up a bit.
Based on the stranger-than-fiction saga of the Sun Gym Gang first reported by Pete Collins in a series of 1999 articles in the Miami New Times, Pain & Gain is the surreal story of three dim-bulb Florida gym rats who stop blasting their quads long enough to hatch a scheme to kidnap and shake down one of their wealthy personal-training clients (the wonderfully surly Tony Shalhoub). The ringleader of this juiced-up caper is Mark Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo, an ambitious bodybuilder who sees his ripped physique as his own personal expression of the American dream made flesh. It’s the kind of character that’s right in Wahlberg’s wheelhouse. Daniel is essentially who Dirk Diggler would have become had he given up porn, chugged a few protein shakes, and moved to Miami-Dade County.
You’d have to be a moron to buy anything that the delusional dreamer has to sell, but this is Miami in the ’90s. Anything sounds plausible if you’ve got enough cocaine coursing through your bulging veins. Daniel finds a couple of willing thick-necked co-conspirators in his fellow trainer Adrian (Anthony Mackie, who actually manages to make shriveled-testicle and erectile-dysfunction jokes funny) and the Jesus-freak ex-con Paul (a fast and loose Dwayne Johnson). Together they plot a lamebrain caper, which quickly backfires thanks to a string of idiotically bad decisions.
Initially, their Keystone Kops-on-creatine act is hilarious, and Bay seems liberated by the larky lightness of the film. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still Michael Bay — he doesn’t waste any opportunity to show a close-up of some bikini-clad babe’s thong-cleaved derriere — but this smart, scaled-down new direction feels fresher than his usual cocktail of fireballs and bombast. The film, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is cleverly told from shifting points of view, so that we get voice-overs from each of the characters recounting what absurd turn of events happened next. Even they can’t seem to believe their own stupidity. For the first half of the film, which has a fizzy, kicky, caffeinated energy, this works beautifully. But as with the steroids and blow that fuel the film, the high eventually subsides and it goes on for at least a half hour too long. Pain & Gain proves once and for all that Michael Bay can set up a punchline. Now all he needs is an editor. B