Michael Bay | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R
For his first non-sci-fi movie in a decade, divisive action director Michael Bay channels Tarantino (kinda) for this based-on-a-true-story crime comedy. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg and Anthony “The Falcon” Mackie star as a gang of dimwitted Florida bodybuilders who come up with a ‘foolproof’ plan to rob a rich gym client.
That comparison to Tarantino is lifted from Now TV’s description of the film, and I don’t quite agree with it. Pain & Gain is certainly a comedic crime movie, the kind of thing Tarantino was known for before he got diverted into genre B-movie homage/parodies, but it doesn’t feel like a Tarantino movie — which, considering the innumerable films that do rip-off his ’90s style (even today), is only a good thing. I wouldn’t say Bay’s movie feels wholly unique or original, but I don’t think it’s Tarantino he’s riffing off.
Nonetheless, the film’s best asset is its humour, much of it derived from dialogue. Proceedings take a little while to warm up, with some character backstory flashbacks that aren’t always necessary and seem to befuddle the narrative, but once it settles down into the crime spree, it’s consistently hilarious. Bay has pitched the tone exactly right, playing it straight but with an OTT edge that betrays awareness of the ludicrousness of it all. Towards the end, when events have reached a point of total ridiculousness, he throws up an onscreen caption to announce, “This is still a true story.” That’s witty. (Though, ironically, it appears during one of the few bits the filmmakers did actually make up!)
Bay is aided by leads who are surprisingly adept at comedy. Johnson is the best thing in it, consistently hilarious as his conscience battles former addictions and newfound religious convictions. I noted down some of his best lines to quote in the review, but they lose something without his delivery.
I suppose there is a question of whether this tone really is appropriate: as these are real-life events, should we be finding them so funny? It is kind of tasteless. I suppose you could parlay that into a discussion about the comedic crime sub-genre on the whole: is it okay to laugh at this kind of behaviour so long as it’s been dreamt up in the mind of some (wannabe-)auteur, but as soon as someone actually did it for real, a film of those events has crossed the line. Is that a sound argument? If you’re going to find a fictionalised account of the real-life version abhorrent, shouldn’t we similarly find the wholly-fictional version similarly poor? It’s a moral quandary I don’t really have an answer for because, when all is said and done, what the real guys did was horrendous, but the way they went about it was ludicrous and is almost unavoidably darkly funny in the re-telling. I certainly laughed.
After he’s become so sidetracked making the awful Transformers movies, it’s easy to forget that Bay was once a quality action filmmaker. His works may not have class, but they had style and panache befitting the genre — The Rock, in particular, is a ’90s action classic. Pain & Gain isn’t exactly a return to form because it’s not the same kind of movie, but it is the first Bay movie for at least a decade that’s really worth your time.