“Pain & Gain” finds the moral darkness in bright Miami sunlight

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It’s nice to see Michael Bay take a break from the destruction of massive cities, unrelentingly dumb Shia LaBeouf catchphrases, racist stereotypes, dumb-shit “-‘Merica!” shouting jingoism, perception of women characters as either stern sticklers or blatant sex objects, and the sight of swinging robot testicles. Seriously, I wish I was making this shit up, but when’s the last time you popped Transformers 2 in your DVD player?

Pain & Gain represents his first film outside of that franchise since 2005, but let’s not pop champagne bottles yet — the dude’s prepping the fourth installment to drop in under a year. Indeed, after choreographing all of that madness for three blockbusters straight, it’s hard not to see the appeal Bay identified in making a $22-million, largely dialogue-driven film — as sharp a right turn as any major American directors have taken in a while.

Bay’s gamble pays off. Keeping many of his worst tendencies in firm check, while applying his famous taste for the loud and the overblown to a true story whose message ends up lampooning these exact qualities, Pain & Gain is both his most mature film yet, as well as his most genuinely subversive.

Rather than dumbly championing American excess as he seemed to do with his Transformers entries, Bay takes a sharply critical eye to it with Pain & Gain. Full disclosure: sharp here does not mean subtle. He still paints in sweepingly broad strokes with pointed, blunt revelations and dialogue. But hell, dude, if Bay can’t change himself as a filmmaker — and after 18 years and billion-dollar grosses, it’s not happening — then why not champion the occasion when he pushes himself?

Based on a series of Miami New Times articles, Pain & Gain chronicles the generally true exploits of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) — a 1990s bodybuilder who is constantly looking to push himself, citing the pursuit of his personal “American Dream”. Given his ex-con status and the limited social mobility of 30-something gym workers, however, Lugo doesn’t have many options. His weight-room friends, too, are in something of a rut — Paul (Dwayne Johnson) is an ex-cokehead and present-Jesus freak, and Adrian’s (Anthony Mackie) incessant steroid use have crippled him sexually. To fix their problems, these three sharp intellects cook up the plot to kidnap widely-disliked entrepreneur Victor Kershaw and torture him until he signs over his assets. When they manage to pull the job off and attain the luxurious lifestyles they’ve always wanted, their worst, most savage tendencies begin to come out — especially when Victor’s money runs out and they need to pull off another scheme.

It’s here where the film really begins to fly off the rails — as these guys begin committing more and more despicable acts and shoveling more and more coke into their noses, Pain & Gain transforms into a totally frenetic blur often approaching near avant-garde levels of delirium. Cameras fly through walls, cuts become more rapid and just about every character loses their shit. It’s here where the film’s status as “A Michael Bay Film” begins to genuinely work in its favor — using his famous eye for excess to capture a genuine sense of paranoia, helplessness and moral apathy. Given that our sympathies don’t really lie with any of the three protagonists, it probably helps that the film is fiercely funny throughout, with Bay rolling back his normal slapstick shtick. Dwayne Johnson is a particular revelation, giving one of the nuttiest, wildest, most committed performances of 2013 to date — equal parts religious teddy bear, coked-out thief, homophobic hulk and lovable dimwit.

Mark Wahlberg is in fine form as well, taking a break from his recent B-thriller output to go as all-out/gonzo/apeshit as anything he’s done since ’97’s Boogie Nights, a similar (if far superior) condemnation of excess and greed. The supporting cast is equally game, with players like Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson and Tony Shalhoub lending gravitas and hilarity where necessary.

Pain & Gain was something of a flop upon release (after a writing hiatus, I draft this with two months of hindsight), and it’s not hard to see why. This is a film that seems to actively take pleasure in pummeling its audience, with main characters too deluded and too dumb to realize that the “American Dream” they’ve chased is now something closer to a nightmare. Pain & Gain is a fascinating work of self-criticism —  taking many qualities critics rail against Michael Bay’s mega-watt blockbusters for, and applying them in a context where they’re not only thoughtful, but necessary. A-

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