“The studios don’t want me doing little movies,” spits Michael Bay in the Back To Basics featurette, acting like a Hollywood outsider. And, eschewing his usual blockbuster budgets, Bay took a break between Transformers flicks to make the smallest film he could muster.
Does that mean he’s gone all arthouse? Has the man who made Armageddon and Pearl Harbor been harbouring a smart little indie all these years? Of course not.
Dragging out his usual coked-up montage of soft-rock sunsets, MTV edits and people walking away from explosions in slow-motion, Bay swaps giant robots for giant muscle men to tell the story of three inept Miami bodybuilders who stumble into a life of crime.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo – a buffed-up personal trainer who styles himself on Scarface’s Tony Montana and rattles off bumper-sticker platitudes about the American Dream. When a wealthy client (Tony Shalhoub) starts bragging about his new speedboat, Lugo convinces his steroidal friends (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson) to kidnap, torture and extort their way to the sweet life.
What follows is a bizarre mix of baby oil, bikinis, high-def violence and misjudged attempts at black comedy – made all the more distasteful by the constant reminders that the script is based on a true story.
Wahlberg gets to talk as fast as he wants and Mackie has fun with his impotent, breast-milk drinking moron, but it’s Johnson who saves the film – livening up and weirding out every scene he’s in, as a Bible-quoting, cocaine-snorting do-gooder doing wrong.
Whether he’s beating Jewish stereotypes around the face with a giant dildo, doing lines off a stripper’s bum or running around in a gold shell-suit holding his own severed toe, it’s The Rock who makes Pain & Gain memorable.
Not that Bay doesn’t try his hardest. Hurling voiceovers, freeze-frames, jump-cuts and DIY camera trickery at the screen, he’s trying to prove what he can do without a green screen – even if the result still looks like a ’90s music video.
As confused, heavy-handed and empty-headed as its oddball characters, his “little passion project” is just as much pain as it is gain: one minute Rebel Wilson is delivering a few penis jokes, the next Wahlberg is picking a dead woman’s scalp out of a chainsaw.
As fun and funny as it is bloated and offensive, it’s Bay’s best and worst film by far.
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