By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood April 23, 2013 at 2:05PM
I had the misfortune of seeing Michael Bay's "Pain & Gain" at CinemaCon, which Paramount mystifyingly screened to the nation's exhibitors, who tend to be a conservative family-oriented bunch who are always begging the studios to release less R-rated fare. Don't get me wrong. I recognize that this broad action comedy, adapted by the scribes behind "Captain America" and the "Chronicles of Narnia" from a true crime story, required serious brain cells, talent and cinematic chops. Bay is a masterful manipulator of mise-en-scene with a good eye and a healthy love of the slow-mo burn that John Woo could envy.
It's more a question of why anyone would devote so much time and energy to show us something so ugly and depressing? This plunge into the depths of shallow greed and inanity was Bay indulging what he really wanted to do with a "little movie" boasting a budget of $25 million. The foray into soulless machismo opens this Friday.
The large-scale destructiveness he has previously wrecked upon public and private property (including entire cities), Michael Bay visits on the human body in "Pain & Gain," a pulverizing steroidal farce based on a bizarre-but-true kidnapping-and-murder case. Suggesting "Fargo" by way of the Three Stooges, Bay's latest certainly proves that the "Transformers" auteur does have something more than jacked-up robots on his mind: specifically, jacked-up muscle men who will stop at nothing to achieve their deeply twisted notion of the American dream.
Dim-witted bottom-feeders on steroids and coke run amok seeking the American dream in "Pain & Gain," a ham-fisted, thick-skulled comic caper about bodybuilders-turned-criminals which, like its three protagonists, fully lives down to its own potential. Intentionally made on the cheap (for $25 million) thanks to its stars taking back-end deals, this is director Michael Bay's idea of a low-budget indie-style film, even though the muscles and ammo on view here are only slightly less imposing than those of his "Transformers" films.
Bay's Miami is a steroid-drenched house of mirrors, reflecting back the worst of us in the various characters. Wahlberg plays this kind of good-natured idiot better than anyone, and he is unflappable here as he pulls off this impossible scheme. Mackie feeds well off of Wahlberg's energy, and I hope the two of them end up playing another comedy together. For me, though, there's one performance here that is an all-timer, a wildly inspired bit of casting paying off in a rich and lunatic character, fully realized.