Michael Bay, meet Quentin Tarantino

Fort Worth Star-TelegramApril 26, 2013 

To hear director Michael Bay tell it, his latest film “Pain & Gain” might as well be an indie art-house movie.

After all, it only cost $25 million (lunch money for the man who unleashed the blockbusters “Pearl Harbor,” “Bad Boys” and “Armageddon”), has a minimum of explosions, is based on a real-life crime spree from the mid-1990s, has a sense of humor (intentional this time) and came this close to co-starring Albert Brooks.

Sundance, here he comes.

But at heart, it’s still a Michael Bay movie: loud as a Harley at midnight, empty as a dance club at noon, yet as beautiful to look at as a sunrise in Miami, where it’s set.

Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie play Daniel, Paul and Adrian, bodybuilders with IQs only slightly higher than their percentage of body fat, who are tired of their 9-to-5 grind. Daniel, a personal trainer, decides to kidnap one of his rich clients, a self-made loudmouth named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, in the part originally intended for Brooks), and torture him until he signs over all of his assets. Then they can kill him.

Trouble is, Kershaw survives the ordeal, hires a cagey private detective, Ed (Ed Harris), to do the job the Miami police won’t do (the cops assume that because Kershaw is half-Colombian, he must have been involved in some shady, drug cartel-related shenanigans). It doesn’t take long for Ed to figure out what’s going on — especially because our boys are now living South Beach large and executing other poorly thought-out crimes, like the broad-daylight robbery of an armored-truck driver and the kidnapping of a porn kingpin and his girlfriend.

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (“Captain America,” the “Narnia” movies) as a jokey buddy movie, “Pain & Gain” seems to want to make a statement about the American Dream, but its message is a bit murky. Unlike “Spring Breakers,” another stylishly shot film about Florida dimwits looking for an easy payday, “Pain & Gain” doesn’t get below its gleaming surface.

It’s too long (two hours plus) and perhaps too violent for some — closer to vintage Tarantino than Bay’s “Transformers.” So, instead of robot-on-robot punch-ups, there’s a guy getting his face rolled over by a car and another slammed in the face with a weight.

There are some positives: An energetic Wahlberg, pumped up like the Michelin Man, is obviously having a lot of fun; Shalhoub possesses an understated menace; and Bay ravishingly captures Miami’s seductive, sun-drenched tropical torpor while also creating scenes that dazzle with a sense of movement.

But when it’s over — and the faces and the fates of the people on whom the film is based flash on the screen — the realization hits that this was no joke. And that Bay may not have been the best person to tell their sad, twisted story.

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