As it happens, I'm writing this review in Krakow, while working on a film project. Poland, a land rich in both painful history and cultural gain, seems an odd place to be reviewing Michael Bay's dramatically hyperventilated Pain & Gain, but that's the situation in which I find myself.
I suppose it's not entirely inappropriate. If you follow a diagonal line from the National Museum in Krakow to an opposing street corner, you'll run smack into a colossus of a billboard advertising Tom Cruise's Oblivion. That billboard, I suppose, underscores the oft-made but still unsettling point: American movie culture is ubiquitous.
So, Pain & Gain ...
Basing his movie on an improbable but true story, Bay detours from the crash & smash style he brought to movies such as Transformers, forsaking massive explosions for a hyped-up look at low-level Florida thugs who cook up a kidnapping scheme.
In many ways, Pain & Gain is an odd, even bizarre hybrid -- part comedy, part display of shocking violence and part satire about the distorting powers of the American dream.
Despite its multiple ambitions, the movie works best as a comedy about dopey, violent hoodlums who are too dumb to achieve their felonious ambitions. Bay tries to give the violence as much twisted humor as possible, serving up jolts that cause us to wince even as we chuckle.
There's a fine line here, of course, and Bay sometimes crosses it. Too much vividly displayed violence can (and sometimes does) steamroll the movie's comic elements.
Muscularity, of course, is what Bay's after with this story about body builders gone terribly wrong. Mark Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, a weight lifter who works as a trainer at Miami's Sun Gym. The time: the 1990s.
Fearing that he's stuck in a dead-end life, Lugo attends a self-help seminar. He decides that he should be a doer. For Lugo, this means hatching a scheme to kidnap a successful businessman (Tony Shalhoub).
Lugo recruits two cohorts (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson) to carry out his ill-conceived criminal plans. He decides to hold Shalhoub's Victor Kershaw as a prisoner, until Kershaw signs over all his property and wealth to Lugo.
This trio of IQ-deprived felons doesn't count on Kershaw's powers of resistance. The victim refuses to acquiesce. Lugo & company then proceed with a variety of crudely conceived tortures.
To say that these guys are ham-handed gives them more credit than they deserve. They're precisely the kind of bungling fools one used to find in old Ealing Studio comedies -- with one exception: They're in a Michael Bay movie that seems intent on channeling some of Quentin Tarantino's taste for irony-laced violence.
Each of the thugs represents a different brand of self-deception. Lugo comes off a flexed muscle of a man whose brawn and ambition exceed his brain power and skill. Since his release from prison, Johnson's Paul Doyle has been struggling to give up a life of sex, drugs and crime. Despite a new-found love for Jesus, Paul has trouble staying a straight and narrow course. Mackie portrays Adrian Doorbal, a young man whose steroid abuse has left him buffed but impotent.
The supporting cast adds additional noir flavor. Rebel Wilson, who scored big time as Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect, plays the woman who falls for Mackie's Adrian. Michael Rispoli has a nice turn as a porn king who's as sleazy as our trio of heroes, but smarter, and Ken Jeong makes a credible motivational guru, the man whose pseudo-philosophy encourages Wahlberg's Lugo to aspire to a future that doesn't involve wearing sweat pants.
Also look for Ed Harris, as a retired Miami detective who decides to help recover Shaloub's character's wealth.
You should take the movie's "R" rating seriously, but it's not always is easy to take the same attitude toward the rest of Pain & Gain, which can feel like drama gone berserk.
Look, Pain & Gain represents Bay's most interesting work in some time, even though its stylized agitation and dim-witted characters can feel increasingly mismatched.
And then there's this: Pain & Gain has some enjoyable kick, but to paraphrase a line from the late Pauline Kael, the movie may make you wonder why you're spending valuable time watching dumb people do a lot of dumb things.