Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain is about loathsome people doing loathsome things, and ordinarily it would be interesting to ask whether the movie recognizes that said people and things are loathsome – how it feels about them. I think that only Bay could render that question totally moot. The film is so inept and hateful that asking what it thinks about anything seems like dividing by zero. It’s two hours and ten minutes of noise and violence and nonsense delivered with meathead swagger and a hefty dose of frat boy homophobia and misogyny. I hated almost everything about it.
I’ll give Bay this: unlike a lot of big-budget Hollywood hacks, his films are unmistakably his. Pain & Gain, made at a fraction of the budget of the Transformers monstrosities or even something like The Rock or The Island, is still immediately identifiable, at least visually: the low angles, the ostentatious slo-mo, the restless camerawork that feels more like aggression than kineticism, the endless parade of fake tits. The difference, apart from the budget, is that no one here is trying to save the world or win a war or solve a crime. Instead, we get the true story of three bodybuilders (Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) who decide to kidnap, torture and extort a shady businessman (Tony Shalhoub), with the end goal of stealing everything he owns. The plan is complicated when repeated attempts to kill the dude go awry, and he escapes determined to have his revenge.
There are a few laughs here, mostly courtesy of Mark Wahlberg becoming increasingly panicked. (The guy can really only operate at high energies, but kills it when given the chance.) But most of this is staggeringly incompetent, with an incoherent timeline, no attempt at pacing, and the constant sense that certain scenes shoved others out of the way to willy-nilly cram themselves into the film. At one point, our anti-heroes repeatedly attempt to dispose of their mark in more and more outrageous ways, but the fucker won’t die – the sequence should have pulsed with an escalating comic desperation before building to an absurd crescendo, but all Pain & Gain can muster is the same barrage of shrill vulgarity. The cumulative effect is wearying and, for me, depressing. I left the film feeling genuinely down.
Is there a “message” here? There’s a pretense of a mean-spirited one: the corrosiveness of the American dream; the effect of perceived meritocracy on people who can’t really cut it but are convinced otherwise. But they’re just words, delivered in the film’s carousel of voiceovers. If Pain & Gain is about anything, it’s about itself: about how blatant a middle finger it can extend to art, cinema, and comedy, and get away with it.
— Eugene Novikov