There’s a siege mentality about Michael Bay’s movies, as though viewers are the enemy holed up in a bunker and he’s the guy ordering heavy-metal music around-the-clock to wear down our morale and force us to surrender.
Bay’s true-crime caper “Pain & Gain” lacks the visual-effects mayhem and sci-fi cacophony of his “Transformers” blockbusters, yet the movie uses all the shock and awe and noise and bluster the director has in his utterly unsubtle arsenal.
Unlike Bay’s usual action nonsense, there’s a story, screenplay, characters and wry mix of suspense and pitiable comedy to be had in the tale of three Florida bodybuilders who blunder through kidnapping schemes like the Three Stooges on steroids.
All but the faintest flashes of humanity and pathos are flattened by the cinematic cyclone that is Michael Bay. He drowns “Pain & Gain” in gimmick and style which, rather than gussying things up, dresses them down to make the movie even more ugly and sordid than it is on paper.
That these three guys, played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie, are boobs and imbeciles, we get it from their actions. That what they do is reprehensible, that’s clear to see. That the world as they view it is twisted and coarse, another given.
So why can’t Bay set aside a few visual tricks and give us an occasional breather from the overload on screen? “Pain & Gain” is a two-hour onslaught of dizzy, drunken cuts, hot bodies in empty poises, shifting perspectives (with a babble of alternating character voice-overs to accompany) and often sickening images.
Example: Bay puts all of his technical know-how into a remarkably constructed shot of Tony Shalhoub, as the bodybuilders’ first victim, spewing spit as he’s Tasered. It’s done in agonizing slow-motion and extreme close-up, huge bubbles of saliva erupting from Shalhoub’s mouth.
An impressive bit of technical work that’s just disgusting and unpleasant to watch. Despite the sheen of Bay’s imagery, everything about “Pain & Gain” looks filthy and diseased.
Likewise Wahlberg, so boyishly charming as another stunted man-child in last summer’s “Ted,” shows nothing but grubbiness as Daniel Lugo, the dimwitted mastermind of this plot carried out around Miami in the mid-1990s.
An ignoramus awash in envy toward the rich people he trains at a gym, Lugo enlists disciple Adrian Doorbal (Mackie) and born-again ex-con Paul Drake (Johnson) to kidnap self-made millionaire Victor Kershaw (Shalhoub) and torture him to extort everything he’s got.
The dumbfounding farce of how these guys screw things up should be entertainment enough all on its own. Some of that still comes through in the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, though most of the comedy is smothered by the dazzle Bay can’t resist.
Johnson comes off best among the three bad guys, clearly relishing his beta-stooge role as Curly to Wahlberg’s Moe that frees him up for some goofy, unmanly hijinks.
Shalhoub rises above the chaos with razor ferocity to show yet again that he’s one of Hollywood’s finest character actors. Ed Harris adds the movie’s only notes of grace and class as a detective on the case, while Rebel Wilson has scene-stealing moments that feel wonderfully improvised as Doorbal’s kooky wife.
But those few highlights are incinerated in the bonfires Bay sets on-screen.
You don’t expect a real-life story as nasty as this to be a pretty fairy tale. The details are so absurdly tragic, though, that “Pain & Gain” could have been a very entertaining romp through the American dream as reflected in a funhouse mirror.
Instead, it’s a lesson in high-gloss odiousness refracted through the frenzied, look-what-I-can-do lens of Michael Bay. Bring on Wahlberg in the next “Transformers.” There’s bound to be more gain and less pain when Bay’s buffed-up behemoths are giant robots.
“Pain & Gain,” a Paramount release, is rated R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use. Running time: 129 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.