It’s certainly not a unique view but I am definitely not a huge Michael Bay fan. I agree with many that he is a prick whose movies may make a lot of money but are primarily terrible across the board. They are full of style sure, but they are also full of nonsensical action and grade school level humour. Occasionally he manages to eek out a decent one like The Rock or The Island, and I actually like Bad Boys II in spite of itself, but that’s about it. I know most people only point to the Transformers sequels as being awful but I wasn’t a fan of the first either so to me that whole trilogy is completely disposable, though we’ll see about the fourth one (spoilers – it will also be completely disposable).
With Pain & Gain, he can now add another movie to the “well, that was pretty decent I guess” column.
Following the three Transformers disasters, Bay was looking to do something smaller and this is what we got. It’s the true story of three bodybuilders (played by Mark Whalberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie) who plan to kidnap this rich asshole (Tony Shaloub) who works at their gym. They are going to get him to sign away his assets to them so they can live the American dream of living in huge houses and driving ridiculous cars. Shit goes wrong almost immediately, though they continue to charge forward with their plan, somewhat succeeding before things get more and more fucked for them.
Although done on a smaller scale, this is still immediately recognizable as a Bay film. No matter how you feel about him, few directors are so clearly distinguished with their visual style so I guess kudos to him for that. Yes that style is overly flashy and obnoxious but it’s a style nonetheless. However since we aren’t dealing with large robots smashing into each other, we don’t have to deal with the standard rapid fire editing and confusing to follow action sequences. Here there are only a handful of action beats and they are actually handled quite well. They’re easy to follow and well shot, base level praise yes but when it comes to Bay that’s a pretty high level compliment I would say.
Unfortunately you do have to deal with a lot of Bay’s bizarrely terrible attempts at humour. I would say the Transformers’ films are the worst example of this to date. Scenes like the masturbation misunderstanding in the first film, the Mom high on pot in the second film (clearly written by somebody who has never smoked pot, read about pot, or perhaps even heard of pot), or just about any attempt at Shia LaBeouf adlibbing across all three films. They are jokes that are so mind bendingly awful that you can’t believe they wound up in the finished product, and Bay’s movies are full of them!
There’s nothing here that is quite on the level of the bottom of the barrel shit you get in Transformers but definitely stuff that comes close. You have Mackie’s character whose penis doesn’t work and they go back to that well time and time again, though the jokes don’t try to be clever or anything. It’s nothing more than “Yo guys his dick don’t work! What’s up with that?! When you’re a man your dick should work but this guy is a man and his doesn’t! What a concept eh guys?!” There’s a lots of random sprinklings of homophobia which seem out of place and one scene is punctuated with a hospital patient shitting all over the walls and floor of a small bathroom. I have absolutely no issue with juvenile humour but I need there to be a little more to it than just “hey guys shit is pretty funny am I right? Look at all that shit! Hilarious.”
Thankfully there is some humour that actually works so it comes closer than most Bay films to striking a good balance. Most of that is thanks to Dwayne Johnson. His character starts the film as an ex-con who has found Jesus and is hesitant to participate in the whole scheme. He is not a fan of violence and is the only one of the three of who treats their kidnap victim decently. By about the halfway point of the film he has turned into a coke fueled maniac and Johnson handles this portion terrifically, easily getting laughs from his line delivery and general manic behavior. He is without question the highlight of the film and it’s one of my favourite roles of his to date.
Whalberg is also good here as recent roles in movies like Ted have proven he has pretty solid comedic chops. Mackie is unfortunately saddled with the whole erectile dysfunction story and his character isn’t nearly as interesting as Whalberg and Johnson so he is consistently upstaged when it’s the three of them together. Tony Shaloub is appropriately slimy as the asshole they kidnap and Ed Harris as the detective investigating the case is…well its Ed Harris playing a detective. He does well but it’s not a crazy original character or anything. I actually quite liked the character of his wife however, even if she’s not in the movie a whole lot. Since Harris is a retired cop, you would assume the wife would be the standard shrill character who gives him shit for being retired and yet still taking cases. Nope, not at all here. She is supportive of him and even seems genuinely amused about the whole thing. So even though it’s a small part of the overall movie, I liked that.
The running time is also a little long to sustain what is a pretty simple story overall. At 130 minutes there are definitely a few scenes that aren’t totally necessary (for example, an extended neighborhood watch scene, while sporadically amusing doesn’t really add much to anything) and some that run long, causing things to occasionally drag in the middle before getting a shot in the arm in the third act.
I had some issues with Pain & Gain for sure but found myself still enjoying the movie as a whole. Bay occasionally seems determined to torpedo the whole thing but a solid cast and some humour that actually works here and there help keep things just good enough for me to give this one a recommendation, even if it’s a somewhat hesitant one.