Wow, Michael Bay must have been a bad boy. Somebody took all his giant toys away.
And thank heavens, too.
Because without his “Transformers” to play with, the genius-stupid filmmaker has actually turned out a pretty good movie, with some wild style and surprising turns.
“Pain & Gain” is still a Michael Bay movie, of course – which means fiery explosions, slow motion, blaring music and an endless parade of young women in thongs.
Restraint? In Bay’s movies, that’s something the cops put you in when you start mouthing off.
But even with all that, the picture still manages to be a strange contradiction – a polished piece of crude entertainment.
Pain and Gain
Who: Directed by Michael Bay. With Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub.
Rated: R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use.
Running time: 124 minutes.
When: Opens Friday.
Where: Area theaters.
The story – based on fact – is a slice of the kind of true-crime sleaze that only Florida can deliver. But basically it involves a crew of criminal body builders, a couple of shady businessmen, extortion, torture, Eastern European strippers and a private eye.
You know, just another weekend in South Beach.
Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson are the chief beefcakes here, and they’re the obvious box-office draws — and, sadly the weakest parts of the picture.
Neither is a stupid man – you don’t get to be as rich as they are, with as small a skill set as they have, out of stupidity. But they don’t play stupid well. Wahlberg just pops his eyes. Johnson grins, sweetly.
They’re hard workers, but they’re not deft enough to get at the best jokes – that Wahlberg’s character is an idiot who thinks he’s smart, and Johnson a psychopath who thinks he’s a saint.
Pumping iron is one thing, but pushing irony is beyond them.
But there are some far better actors here in the supporting cast, including Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub and, as Mackie’s large-and-in-charge wife, Rebel Wilson. Each one shines.
And Bay understands that this crime movie is really about American ambition – it’s no mistake that one character quotes the De Palma “Scarface,” or a few scenes recall a goofball “Goodfellas.”
In a rare, subtle touch, the soundtrack even channels the Tangerine Dream score for “Risky Business” – another crime-as-capitalism picture that trafficked in aspirational larceny.
It’s so subtle it may even be unconscious – Bay pounds points home like twopenny nails. Most of the movie is shot from absurdly low angles (as if you needed them to make The Rock loom large.) Tiny, dashboard cameras and oversaturated colors also come into play.
But for once, Bay steps back a little bit from the Cuisinart editing and slambang chases to give some space to other effects. Like a few, sly performances. And an appreciation of the sunbaked, sideshow tilt-a-whirl that Miami can be (a world Bay clearly knows, even if he hasn’t visited it onscreen since the “Bad Boys” movies).
“Pain & Gain” is definitely sleazy (private eye Ed Harris and his 30-years-too-young wife are the only moral characters in the whole film). Even a little queasy (violent as Wahlberg and his gang are, they still get more sympathy from the filmmaker than their victims).
But it may be the best movie Michael Bay’s ever made. And suggests that, if you just kept his toys put away a little longer, someday he might even make a better one.
@StephenWhitty, Newark Star-Ledger