When you hear the phrase “Directed by Michael Bay,” you probably think of some if not all of the following things: giant robots, massive explosions, military hardware, unnecessarily scantily clad and impossibly thin women and an insane amount of quick edits. You probably don’t think “passion project.” But that’s what we get here. In order to say yes to directing Transformers 4 for Paramount, Bay insisted that he be given the opportunity to make this “small budget” film ($25 million) based on a series of articles from the Miami New Times that document the exploits of the so-called Sun Gym Gang. The real story is brutal, full of twists and turns, and more than a little weird. So how would this translate into a Michael Bay picture?
Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a charismatic manager of Sun Gym, who “believes in fitness.” We’re shown that he’s a striver who believes that with hard work, you can reach the American Dream, and he plans to work harder than anyone to get there. He talks a great game, but we know early on that he’s been in prison for running some sort of illegal investment scheme. He’s a likeable guy, but he’s not a good guy. He joins up with a couple of other body builders, played by Duane “The Rock” Johnson and Anthony Mackie to kidnap a very rich jerk played hilariously by Tony Shalhoub, and are going to have him sign over all of his assets to them. It’s a dumb plan, but hey, this is what really happened.
This will become a continuing theme throughout this movie. Crazy things go down, and there are a couple of reminders that yes, this is based on a true story. Some of the scenes that were clearly dumb creations of the screenwriters actually turned out to be things that really happened. Could criminals be this dumb and have plans that make so little sense? Apparently so.
What this movie does well is also what it does poorly. What that is is that this movie is funny, really funny. When Michael Bay puts his mind to comedy, he gets good comic performances out of his actors, and has a good sense for the timing necessary for humor. For the first hour of this movie, that totally works. We laugh at how dumb our characters are being, and also at the fact that the dumb characters all think they’re so smart. There is clever humor and hit-and-miss broad humor (look at the funny fat guy in the hospital! Ho ho ho!). There is even a one-liner from The Rock that had my screening room bursting into applause.
The second hour, though, descends into some fairly gruesome stuff, yet our characters are still cracking one liners. In one extremely uncomfortable sequence, Rebel Wilson is delivering testimony in a court of law, and breaks from this to deliver some Rebel Wilson-y material. In the moment, sure, it’ll generate laughter, but dude, it’s not the right time for this! There are some directors who can mix brutal and funny, and others who can even make brutal funny. Michael Bay is not one of them. He effectively makes things brutal, making you not sure you even want to look at the screen, and he can make things drop dead hilarious, but he’s simply not adept at mixing the two.
You’ll laugh at Pain & Gain, especially at the comic performances of Mark Wahlberg and Duane Johnson, but by the end, you’ll be wondering if you really should be. Some films intend this to happen, to create a deeper understanding of the human condition. This one doesn’t; it just sells itself out for comedy, and this approach makes the whole a lot less than the sum of its parts.
Pain & Gain opens nationwide today.