For a guy who just sold billions of dollars' worth of tickets to movies based on cheap toys from the 1980s, it's really kind of cute that Michael Bay feels like he's got something to prove. Some people have never been particularly friendly to the Transformers director; according to Rotten Tomatoes, his 1996 prison-break adventure The Rock is the only Bay film to inspire so much as toleration from critics, while serious film fans deride his rapid, nearly incomprehensible cutting as the depths of taste. But if we let fair criticisms and commercial savvy drown each other out, what remains of Michael Bay isn't some empty-headed technician with a hard-on for explosions—it's a filmmaker who's conquered the biggest, dumbest beast in Hollywood, and now practices the blockbuster as a style unto itself.
In some twisted way—or some glorious lapse of self-consciousness—it makes sense that Bay would seek an escape from his usual grind in Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's script for Pain & Gain, the stranger-than-fiction story of a Miami muscleman named Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) who enlists two fellow gym rats (Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie) in an amateur kidnapping scheme. "I believe in fitness," the wide-eyed, dimwitted Lugo offers in a voiceover; it's the one thing self-discipline has given him in an America that seems to offer so much more, so he decides to steal his way to legitimacy through brute force, with emphasis on the "brute." In asking for a little respect on top of the fame and fortune, perhaps Bay has found a kindred spirit in Daniel Lugo? Or maybe it's just that the "bad ideas turning out worse" motif reminds him of that time he made Pearl Harbor?
Either way, he's chosen well in breaking away from gargantuan-scale action flicks without abandoning his skill set. (Only in the curious case of Michael Bay, after all, does the 'roided-out true crime of Pain & Gain count as a small, prestige-hungry project.) Bay's Miami is an eye-popping playground for the Sun Gym Gang's daydreams, delusions, and aggressive stupidity, a blur of beachfront excess wonderfully perverting the idea of personal achievement. And though they're stretched thin by a two-hour-plus running time, Bay's rhythms show an increasing comfort with comedy, on its own terms and as a component of his supposedly brainless montage. There are only so many low angles and slo-mo shots that can be brushed off before you realize that he means it all to be as silly as you think it is.
There are several things about Pain & Gain, in fact, that consciously recall Bay's career-best action comedy Bad Boys 2, from its Miami setting right down to a self-referential room-to-room camera twirl that's unnecessary even by Bay standards. But one particular hand-me-down really fascinates: As the Sun Gym Gang's exploits grow both wackier and grislier, Bay again lets slip a deep but off-handed sort of nihilism, opening up tonal black holes that nonetheless make for a more compelling movie. (It also helps to dull the otherwise unaddressed misogyny and homophobia.) Still, it's never clear that this moral vacuum-as-aesthetic approach serves any intentionally challenging or subversive end; some audience members may rightfully check out as heads are squished and bodies are carved for comedic effect—all real-life victims, remember—and for those people there will be no mistaking bad taste for edginess.
That's a pity, because Pain & Gain is otherwise a lot of fun. At its heart, of course, this is a true-crime farce any screenwriter would kill to adapt. But Markus and McFeely's script, which fudges some characters and details but tones other things down for believability's sake, really does right by the original story, delivering Bay-ready bombast as well as hard-hitting satire aimed at religious faith and the myth of the American dream. Most of the credit, though, goes to the two leads: Wahlberg, at his reliable best in playing his huffy intensity for laughs, and Dwayne Johnson, who's long since harnessed the comedic potential of having the body of the Rock and the face of a cartoon puppy.
Bay utilizes both to a rare ideal in Pain & Gain, taking advantage of Wahlberg and Johnson as performers and as masculine objects onto which he can deflect all the criticisms of his work as being big, stupid, and massively overconfident. Then he turns it back around on us: Yes, it's all those things and more! But in the end, isn't it fun to look at? And could it be that us mortals are just a little bit jealous? Maybe that's a lot of credit to give the guy, but anyone paying real attention has noticed that there's some level of wit to Michael Bay's work, and with Pain & Gain we know for sure that he's noticed it, too.