(CNN) -- Here is the question: Can it be called a Michael Bay film if there are no explosions?
With "Pain & Gain," the director best known for action-packed films such as the "Transformers" franchise and "Armageddon" goes decidedly smaller, though no less hefty in the over-the-top nature.
The film -- which opens Friday -- stars Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Anthony Mackie as a trio of hapless bodybuilders who launch a harebrained kidnapping scheme. An action-comedy, it's based on the true story of a murderous gang in Florida in the 1990s, which included a group of bodybuilders.
Unlike Bay's other projects that have found him alternately hailed and crucified (he appears on both an Internet Movie Database list of all-time worst and best movie directors), there is a dearth of stylized car chases, massive guns and things blowing up. "Pain & Gain" was not conceived as a massively budgeted, summer blockbuster.
"I wanted to do a quirky movie," Bay told The New York Times. "I wanted to do something small, just actors acting. It was almost like film school again for me."
Film school? For the man who brought the world "Bad Boys" and "Bad Boys II"?
Perhaps that is why Jack Giroux at the Film School Rejects site penned "The Case for Michael Bay as Visionary Auteur." "A Michael Bay picture is many, many things," Giroux writes. "The global showman has made his career off shiny money shots, a broad sense of humor, solid on-screen pairings, well-orchestrated chaos, and much more."
Despite the fact the new film isn't like most of his other movies, Giroux sees elements of Bay in in it.
"The director's newest movie, the abrasively entertaining 'Pain & Gain,' carries on those trademark signatures in many ways," he says. "It's not the explosions which make him an auteur, it's the little things that make his human stories more meaningful than what we see from most blockbuster directors."
Bay probably agrees. He told CNN his latest project reminds him of another of his summer films from many years ago.
"I do like releasing films in summer, but this is a small little movie, but it's got a little of that 'Bad Boys' vibe to it," Bay said. "So this kind of goes back to my roots. I like low-budget movies, and this is a character piece."
Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson notes that "it's no secret that films like 'Pearl Harbor' (an epic romantic drama set during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) and 'The Island' (a science-fiction thriller that serves as a parable for the perils of genetic science and/or abortion) were Michael Bay's attempts at artistic legitimacy.
"They didn't quite work out, leading Bay to somewhat surrender and helm a big budget trilogy based on a toy line about cars/planes that turn into robots and fight each other," Mendelson writes. "So here in 'Pain & Gain' we see the return of 'serious' Michael Bay."
Wahlberg told The New York Times he had full faith in Bay -- who has also cast the star in his next "Transformers" film.
"You get the artsy-fartsy guys of the world who do these little quirky comedies or dramas, that think they're cool and they're the artists," the actor told the paper. "But he can do the stuff that other guys can't do."
Co-star Ken Jeong, who is best known for "The Hangover" films, told The Hollywood Reporter that "Pain & Gain" is "one of best Michael Bay's films ever."
For his part, Bay seemed to have enjoyed the respite that came with being scaled down. He told CNN he tried to keep things intimate on the set.
"It's really refreshing just to have actors act, you know? On 'Transformers' you are dealing with 2,000 people. This is much smaller, intimate, like a 100-person crew!"