As unfair as it may be, it’s hard to watch Pain & Gain and not think about what might have been if the movie had landed in the hands of a director other than Michael Bay. If the Coen brothers or Steven Soderbergh had taken on the mind-boggling true story of a gang of dim-witted, murderous bodybuilders in Miami in the mid-’90s, Pain & Gain might have been a clever, biting black comedy instead of a hyper-caffeinated thriller with occasional flashes of wit.
As it is, Pain & Gain is certainly Bay’s best movie in years (if not ever), a vast improvement over his headache-inducing Transformers series. The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on an acclaimed series of Miami New Times articles by Pete Collins, delivers some amusing dialogue and entertaining characters, but Bay turns it all into, well, a Michael Bay movie. He certainly knows how to stage a chase sequence, but Bay is tone deaf when it comes to humor, and what could have been wry and self-aware is instead just cartoonish.
Bay does a decent job with the casting, at least: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie play bodybuilders and petty criminals who frequent Miami’s Sun Gym, all dreaming of a better future for themselves. Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo latches on to the idea of kidnapping a wealthy client (Tony Shalhoub) and forcing him to sign over all his assets without even knowing who his captors are. Naturally, things go awry, and the group’s activities escalate from kidnapping and extortion to murder and grand larceny.
Even streamlined from the convoluted true story, the movie still feels too long, and Bay tries to fill in the lulls with his standard stylistic tricks (slow-mo, low angles, scantily clad women, even characters walking casually away from an explosion). But there’s no subtlety to what Bay does, and he runs roughshod over the small character moments and bungles most of the jokes. Wahlberg and Johnson give impressive performances as the gang’s overconfident leader and his gullible acolyte, but the nuances of their acting are lost amid flashy camera work and broad humor. The story is too inherently fascinating for Bay to completely screw it up, but he comes close.