With a budget of just US$26 million though (a tenth of his usual spending), this was supposed to be the director’s (Transformers, The Rock, Bad Boys) return to his 'independent roots'.
Pain & Gain is a real-life film about bodybuilders turned criminals in 1990s Miami who kidnapped people, tortured and killed them. Bay read the true story and, as you do, made a comedy out of it.
To be fair, the usual overproduced and explosions-laden approach he has taken to films over the years isn’t at the forefront of this dark tale, and to his credit, the humorous bits are actually pretty funny, often delivered by the true star of the film (sorry Mark Wahlberg, but you’re a support act here) Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (Fast Five), who plays born-again Christian and ex-con Paul Doyle.
With its stellar cast, Pain & Gain will certainly entertain you, which is nothing less than you would expect from a Michael Bay film, but making a comedy about an actual killing spree, and with the families of the victims still alive, is very risky business. Bay barely pulls it off the balancing act.
In fact, he often resorts to type, with slow motion shots and blown out colour corrections (Bay seems to have a pornographic sensibility when filming, such as shooting upskirt shots of dead women). But the real twist of the film – spoiler alert – doesn't come until the last act, where the 'good guys' we have been rooting for all along suddenly become the bad guys, and the story suddenly becomes far too real.
Next to Johnson, Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter) is superb as the supposedly dim-witted bodybuilder who manages to mastermind the crime spree. He brings a wide-eyed persona to the screen that makes audiences feel compassion for a killer. Anthony Mackie (Eagle Eye, The Hurt Locker) rounds out the trio and joins the kidnapping simply to get money to correct his erectile dysfunction (cue laugh track).
Though the movie is edited in a choppy and confusing way, to its credit, Pain & Gain doesn't hit you over the head with overblown explosions (maybe one time) and does have enough funny moments that make you forget it's about a horrific murder spree that happened in the not so distant past. Perhaps we could call it a dark comedy, but it's a little darker than comedic – especially during the final act.
In the end, we’re left with a – somewhat satisfying – dark, twisted satire of the bodybuilding mentality, and to an extent, fufillment of the 'American Dream', which would be quite funny – if it wasn’t all true.