Red Carpet Report: Pain & Gain premiere
01:16 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: This movie review may contain spoilers.

Story highlights

"Pain & Gain," directed by Michael Bay, is based on a true crime story

The film stars Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson

The director's callous disregard for human suffering is plain to see

CNN  — 

What was it Jane Fonda used to say? “No pain, no gain.”

She wasn’t talking about punching a guy in the face, handcuffing him to a chair for days and weeks on end, stringing him upside down like a piece of dry-cleaning, setting him on fire (feel the burn!) and running him over with a van, but these nuances can get lost in translation when an ambitious young man takes it into his head to improve his lot in life.

Such is the plot of “Pain & Gain.” Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is like Don Vito Corleone: he believes in America. His heroes are the self-made men – like the Corleones, like Scarface. The guys who started with nothing and made it happen for themselves. Do-ers, not don’t-ers. Daniel believes in America and he believes in fitness, and having proved his worth by attaining the physique he always wanted and tripling the membership at the Miami gym where he works (primarily by offering free memberships to strippers) he reckons he deserves the rest of the package: the big house, the boat, the sports car, the money.

And so he hatches a “three-finger plan.” With two bodybuilding buddies (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson), he snatches a wealthy client (Tony Shalhoub) and tortures him until he signs away all his property and assets. Surprisingly, this works. The gang’s gross incompetence and double-digit IQ is matched only by the indifference of local law enforcement.

Although he’s famous for his boys’ toys movies (“Transformers,” “Armageddon”), let’s not forget Michael Bay cut his teeth on the slick buddy cop movie “Bad Boys,” which filmed in and around Miami at much the same time as Daniel Lugo and pals were chopping up body parts with a chainsaw and an ax.

Does that make this self-styled “small movie” a more personal, mature work than his blockbusters? Well, it’s R-rated, which means Bay gets to indulge his sexism and casual homophobia more explicitly than usual, albeit roped to a scattershot satire of dumbbell self-improvement culture and rampant egomania.

Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have shown a knack for hardboiled black comedy before, notably in “You Kill Me,” and it’s easy to imagine that the Coen brothers could have fashioned something sharp and funny out of this dismal true story. But even if he’s obviously imitating “Burn After Reading” (the Coens’ worst film) and “Fargo” (possibly their best), putting a satire in Bay’s hands is rather like presenting the keys of a stolen Lamborghini to a drunken teenager. It’s a fast ride, but it doesn’t take you where you want to go.

This is a movie about stupidity and cruelty in which stupidity and cruelty permeate almost every scene. Bay doesn’t hold anything back – everything is over-pitched and underlined in hot neon. If he’s braked his trademark action cutting, it’s only to go overboard on slow-motion so as not to miss a single drop of blood or perspiration.

He casts broad comic actors like Rebel Wilson, Rob Corddry, Michael Rispoli and Ken Jeong in supporting roles while encouraging his leads to play it straight, but caricatures victims and criminals alike. They’re all contemptible in his eyes – the women more than anyone. Israeli model Bar Paly plays an Eastern European stripper who is apparently so stupid she believes Daniel is a CIA agent. She’s also subjected to a throwaway gang rape gag for her trouble – thanks for that, Michael.

The scenes of violence – played for gross-out black comedy – are especially toxic. This crude and ugly entertainment is as crass as everything this depressingly successful filmmaker has done.