There are many movies that could have been made from the raw materials of Pain & Gain, which is based on a series of outrageous Miami New Times articles about three dimwit Florida bodybuilders who in 1994 kidnapped a rich local businessman and stripped him of all his assets. Some filmmakers, for example, might have looked at this story as a dark commentary on the American dream or as a satire on Miami's Neverland strangeness. Michael Bay is not that filmmaker.
Bay seems to have been interested in this story mostly because it sounded, like, really funny and, y'know, insane, bro. He fills Pain & Gain with flash and energy, and he does it well enough that the movie succeeds. But at the same time, it's a missed opportunity.
As originally chronicled by journalist Pete Collins in late '99 and early 2000, Pain & Gain drops us into the world of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a Miami fitness buff who's a top personal trainer inspired by the characters in The Godfather, Scarface and Rocky. Wahlberg's at his best when he's playing genuine-but-clueless lugs, and Daniel is perfect for him: The character's idea of how to get ahead in America is completely wrongheaded—he doesn't understand that Rocky Balboa and Tony Montana are on very different moral planes—but he believes it so deeply that it's almost touching.
One of Daniel's clients is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a successful man whom Daniel has decided doesn't deserve his big house and fancy cars. (The names of the actual victims were changed in the movie to protect their identities.) Daniel, who considers Victor an affront to his own dreams, recruits two regulars at his gym to kidnap the guy and extort him for all he's worth. One is Daniel's longtime buddy Adrian Doorbal (a disappointingly one-note Anthony Mackie), who's so obsessed with steroids that he's done severe damage to his penis. (And because this is a Michael Bay movie, you can count on plenty of dick jokes.) The other is Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a recently freed convict and born-again Christian who's in desperate need of money.
Pain & Gain is Michael Bay's first non-Transformers film in eight years, and only Bay could look at this new movie as some sort of return-to-his-roots, "artistic" outing. It's still endlessly frenetic—the only time the camera isn't whipping around is when everything's moving in super slow-motion—but Pain & Gain does seem to be Bay's attempt at making an epic crime drama like a Goodfellas or Casino. Just about every major character supplies some voiceover, each of them adding in background details or explaining their perspective on the events.
But does Bay really have any roots to go back to? From his debut with Bad Boys, he's always been about high-octane, low-nutrition action movies. The return to Miami, where the Bad Boys movies were set, has at least loosened him up a bit. Among all the other reasons the Transformers movies were terrible, Bay never seemed to be having any fun making them. They lumbered around, mechanical and joyless. Pain & Gain recalls the unapologetic guys'-guy bravado of Bay's earlier work, and he has a blast taking this unbelievable true story out for a spin, driving way too fast and seeing if anybody's going to stop him.
Unfortunately, Bay's reconnection with his Bad Boys/The Rock period doesn't mean that he's matured since then. At 48, he still comes across through his movies as the world's oldest frat guy–objectifying women, telling lame jokes, and getting incredibly uncomfortable in the presence of homosexuals. Pain & Gain's story is inherently funny, but Bay doesn't do much to sharpen the humor. He shoots everything in Awesome-O-Rama, which makes the action sequences bigger and the jokes louder. But Bay knows nothing of nuance, so the material's deeper levels simply don't interest him. He just wants to tell a story about some dumb guys who swindled this jerky guy and then had to do a bunch of messed-up stuff to get away with their crimes. Bay's ADHD filmmaking is enough to make Pain & Gain endlessly watchable, but the twisted darkness of the actual events (adapted by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) is what gives the movie life.
The acting does, too. You tend not to dwell on performances in a Bay movie, but Pain & Gain has two standouts. One is Wahlberg's Daniel who, deep down, thinks of himself as a Rocky-like underdog required to seek vengeance against foreigners like Victor who have stolen his American dream. He thinks he's a hero, and his surety makes his actions all the more frightening. Daniel gets progressively more unhinged as the movie rolls along, but Wahlberg keeps him believable, grounding Daniel's criminal activities in a wounded sense of pride that (to his mind, anyway) justifies everything he's done.
But the real standout is Johnson. Pain & Gain's unsubtle approach ensures that Paul's struggle between being a good Christian and helping with this kidnapping will mostly be played for broad, mocking laughs. But Johnson is actually quite nuanced in his portrayal. In the past, the actor has played either kick-ass action roles or dopey comedy characters, with the occasional dramatic role thrown in for good measure. Pain & Gain brings together his different onscreen persona, and it's more proof that the guy's simply magnetic. Paul may be a conflicted fool, but Johnson makes you feel the turmoil within the character: He wants to be a good person, but his human temptations simply won't let him. It's a sign of Johnson's decency that even when Paul has to engage in some of the movie's homophobic humor—ha ha, gay sex toys sure are weird—the character is mostly live-and-let-live about the whole thing.
Even with those performances, though, Bay can't help but overdo everything in Pain & Gain. The film's later sections get aggressively dark and, at two hours, the movie feels longer than it needs to be. And, seriously, the man's attitude toward women and gays is repugnant. But let's be honest: This is the sort of movie Bay was built to make. There have been a few movies recently set in Florida, and each played to that filmmaker's strengths and interests. Magic Mike incorporated Steven Soderbergh's preoccupation with showing how people go about doing their jobs, and it was filmed in his cool, observational style. Spring Breakers was Harmony Korine finding a new way to outrage audiences and sensationalize weirdo behavior. Pain & Gain is Bay's way to celebrate supreme macho attitude, as always. There's a strange, juicy movie in there about police incompetency, unbridled ambition, America's penchant for can-do positivity, and the simmering tensions within a large multicultural city. Bay finds that movie about half the time. The other half, he seems as much of a meathead as his characters.
Grierson & Leitch write regularly for Deadspin about movies. Follow them @griersonleitch.