"I knew Danny was making most of this shit up, but it didn't matter because we were gonna be fuckin' rich."
Michael Bay. Fewer names inspire such passionate reaction as his. From his early days spent as a music video director ripping off more talented video directors like David Fincher (you can find evidence of this all over youtube), Bay has been a lightning rod for controversy, most of which he goes out of his way to stir up himself. He is the kind of director that makes bold, brash, unsubtle, unintelligent movies, and makes a fortune doing it. He has undeniable talents behind the camera, but seems content to put those on the back burner in favor of shooting explosions, robots & tits in slow motion.
Ditching his infamous Transformers trilogy, at least for the moment, he's scaled down and made Pain & Gain, a film that isn't bad, but in the hands of a better director, could have been fantastic. Based on a true story, Pain & Gain tells the tale of bodybuilders Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) & Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), two gym rats working at Sun Gym in Miami, FL in the mid-90s. Daniel is not content to watch others grab the American dream while he wastes away in a gym, so when a rich, new client named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub) comes to the gym and begins training with him, Danny sees an opportunity to take what he feels is his away from someone he feels doesn't deserve it.
Danny & Adrian recruit another new gym rat by the name of Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to help in their kidnapping & extortion plot, but he proves to be a weak link in the chain, sympathizing with Kershaw, and making their entire plan unravel pretty fast. Luckily for them, no one believes Kershaw's story, so they seem to have gotten away with everything. Kershaw employs a private investigator by the name of Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) to do what the police wouldn't, but the three meatheads may prove to be their own undoing as they begin to run out of money and seek other sources of getting fast, easy cash.
The film is anything but subtle, but it manages to still be an entertaining enough film. While it thankfully never asks you to sympathize with these criminals, it definitely has fun at the expense of just about every character on screen, and usually not in a lighthearted way. In fact, my biggest issue with the film is that it's just plain mean sometimes. Characters, especially those who don't look like the typical Hollywood movie star, are treated with contempt for any sort of physical or mental deformities, and end up being the butt of almost every joke in the film. Michael Bay is just a mean dude. He's the equivalent of a playground bully, has all the cool toys, won't share them, and takes every opportunity he can to point out how stupid everyone else around him is.
In spite of all this, the film is still highly watchable and holds your attention for two hours and change. While the characters act in the most ridiculous manner imaginable, Bay has no problem reminding you (sometimes in on-screen text) that what you're watching is a true story. And that's the best thing about the film. Truth is stranger than fiction, and this is a hell of a story. Michael Bay just couldn't be more wrong as the person to tell it. He can't focus on anything long enough to make it interesting and the film severely lacks focus. I can only imagine what this same film had been like in the hands of a much more skilled filmmaker or filmmakers, like The Coen Brothers.
The performances are pretty good, for the most part, with Johnson being the stand-out. He's never had a character with this much depth to play on-screen before, and he rises admirably to the challenge. It feels sort of like his coming out as an actor, and makes me excited to see what the future holds for him. Wahlberg is disappointingly one-note in his performance, but his character is probably the least nuanced of the group. I know he's a better actor than this film let him be. Same goes for Harris, who's also good, but is playing a completely one-note character. Shaloub goes for broke in his role, and would like be a distraction if he weren't surrounded by chaos like he is here, but it's only in retrospect that I see his character to be all over the map.
Pain & Gain isn't a bad movie. But it certainly isn't a good movie. It's got a great story, some interesting characters, but lots of mean-spirited, attention deficit-esque filmmaking. Michael Bay just needs to stay in his corner of the sandbox with his robots, much as Tim Burton has come to realize he's only good at one thing, being a weirdo. It only makes it worse when he tries to do something different. He's just not suited to it, and ends up almost ruining what could have otherwise been a great little movie.