What's so funny about murder, torture and dismemberment? Plenty, in the right hands, as the Coen Brothers proved with "Fargo." In the hands of Michael Bay, the director of "Pain & Gain," however, you may feel the grisly laughs sticking in your throat.
Based on a 1999 series of articles in the Miami New Times, "Pain & Gain" is a pitch-black comedy about two Miami bodybuilders, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), who hatch a plan: Kidnap a rich guy, torture him into signing away his assets, then kill him. This is Lugo's twisted version of Horatio Alger bootstrapping -- "The way to improve yourself is to better yourself," he says sagely -- while Doorbal is merely compensating for his steroid-shriveled manhood. Joining them is the hulking, childlike ex-con Paul Doyle (a fictional role played by Dwayne Johnson).
Unfortunately, their colossal biceps are matched only by their stupidity. Their victim, deli owner Victor Kershaw (an excellent Tony Shalhoub), not only survives but begins tracking his captors via a private investigator, Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris, also narrating). Meanwhile, the powerlifters choose a second victim. That plan goes even worse.
Initially, "Pain & Gain" is such a high-speed ride into the American heart of darkness (Ken Jeong plays Lugo's favorite get-rich-quick guru) that all the beatings and skull crushings just seem like slapstick. Wahlberg's manic energy will keep you cranked up, and Johnson is so endearing and deftly funny that he flat-out steals the movie. It's easily the best -- maybe the first? -- performance of his career.
Ultimately, though, Bay -- whose "Transformer" movies seem like monuments to mindless consumerism -- may be the wrong choice for this cynical script (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely). As the action grows rougher, bloodier, then downright ghastly, Bay maintains a broad-humored, wacky tone that begins to feel, as some real-life victims and their kin have complained, insensitive. "Pain & Gain" mostly laughs at its three dumb antiheroes. But that, too, has a cruelty all its own.
PLOT Three Miami bodybuilders with more brawn than brains stage a kidnapping that goes horribly awry. Based on a true story.
RATING R (violence, nudity, language)
BOTTOM LINE Grisly slapstick and freewheeling cruelty abound in this pitch-black comedy, which can be quite funny until it isn't.
Michael Bay transforms to wizard of odd
Michael Bay, director of the blockbuster "Transformers" trilogy and other huge hits, smiles when you tell him "Pain & Gain" -- his self-described "small movie" made on a budget of $26 million -- is one of the oddest films to come out of Hollywood in years.
"This is a weird movie," the director says. "This is not the kind of movie the studios greenlight much anymore. I wanted to do something small and quirky. But because I've made Paramount billions of dollars with the 'Transformers' movies, I told them, 'I'm going to make this movie.' They said 'Why do you want to make it?' They were scared of it. But I saw something unique in this material."
"Pain & Gain" is different from anything Bay had directed before: character-based and performance-driven, with only one brief action sequence and a single, rather puny explosion.
Bay, who is known for hyperkinetic editing, still delivers the beautiful visuals, but he holds on shots and characters' faces for longer than two seconds, giving you time to take them in.
"People have always given me a hard time on my editing," he says. "But if you could do a graph on my movies, you would see how my editing has slowed down over the years."
-- Miami Herald