Dir: Michael Bay
With: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie
Runtime: 129 minutes
IT is fair to say no-one ever went to a Michael Bay movie and left feeling they could join Mensa in the morning. The director of Transformers, Bad Boys, and Armageddon is to big, dumb, loud movies what Simon Cowell is to big, dumb, loud television. Subtlety and Mr Bay are destined to never exchange Christmas cards.
Even by his standards, however, Pain & Gain has all the sophistication of an amoeba married to the determination of a shark. It darts here, there and everywhere in search of the easy laugh, all the while inviting the audience to admire the muscular sleekness of its stars Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie. Should there be the least danger of anyone tiring of pumped up men behaving badly, the music is pumped up by way of a distraction. Dumb can be good. Dumb can be fun. Not in this case, though, or at least not for very long.
Pain & Gain is the latest Hollywood movie to have started life as magazine article about a true case. Just as Sofia Coppola turned a Vanity Fair piece about teen burglars into The Bling Ring, so the story behind Bay's actioner started out on the page with articles by Pete Collins. Coming soon: Steven Spielberg turns a My Weekly Knit Your Own Six Berth Caravan feature into an Oscar winner.
Here, Bay begins in true journo style with a juicy, draw-em-in intro and the tease that what we are about to see is a true story. Ooh er. It is June 1995 in Miami and a muscle-bound bod (Wahlberg) is working out in the Florida sunshine, the picture of healthy living. What happens next suggests that all is not as it seems in this picture of Floridian happiness.
Cut to six months earlier and we have the chance to get to know Daniel better. A bodybuilder and personal trainer, Daniel is ferociously ambitious but fairly clueless, the kind of fodder for whom get rich quick schemes were invented. Indeed, we see him attending a seminar run by one such snake oil salesman, played by The Hangover's Johnny Wu. His presence is as fine a clue as any as to where the drama hopes to be heading - straight into Hangover-style, edgy, comedy.
Daniel eventually hits on a plan that will suit his patience level and skill set. If life is too mean to give him a big house and a fat bank account he will find a way to take them. To help him in this task, Daniel turns to fellow bodybuilders in the shapes of Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian (Anthony Mackie). So the planning for the crime begins, with Daniel reassuring the others that putting his scheme into action will be simplicity itself. "I watch a lot of movies, I know what I'm doing."
At this point the audience is meant to be sniggering along, laughing at knuckleheads being knuckleheads. And it is fair to say that if anyone could make these three ugly characters in the least attractive it would be Wahlberg, Johnson, and the lesser known Mackie (The Hurt Locker, The Adjustment Bureau). Wahlberg, star of The Fighter, Ted and the recent 2 Guns, has a winning way with spiky sorts, keeping them on the right side of the divide between likeable and alienating. His angry, exasperated men are a lot of fun to watch. Imagine Victor Meldrew with a suntan and the body for a vest.
Johnson, so often the gentle giant in movies, a sort of brick outhouse with a take home to mother personality, goes for a change of tack here. Being a one-time bad boy who now walks with Jesus, his character has his own code of conduct, one which veers alarmingly from one extreme to the other as needs dictate. Paul, more than any other character, is heading for Hangover territory.
Yes, Bay is at it again with the Hangover hints. Todd Phillips' 2009 hit has a lot to answer for in as much as it has ushered in a slew of movies that try to take comedies to bleaker, racier places but do not have the smarts or charm to succeed.
Pain & Gain wants so badly to play like a daring, "I can't believe they just did that" comedy that it struggles desperately to mine laughs from situations that simply do not contain them.
Unless you happen to find the idea of kidnap and violence worth a giggle, Pain & Gain is an almost entirely mirth free zone (what funny patches there are belong to Wahlberg). This is not so much an edgy comedy drama as one that crosses the line entirely, without success.
Pain & Gain's biggest sin is not that it is morally iffy but that it is monumentally boring, despite all the crash, bang, wallop going on. That is the trouble with starting a one-note, one-joke movie with the amp turned up to 11 - there are few places left to go next.
Only the arrival of Ed Harris as an investigator perks up matters to the point where the movie begins to look lively again, but by then it is too late.