Michael Bay's latest film keeps telling the audience that it is based on a true story, but it is more than advisable, it is imperative, that you avoid reading up on the actual case the film is based on to enjoy what Bay presents to you. The story of three body-builders who kidnap and torture a man until he signs all his possessions over is a dark one at the best of times, but with Pain & Gain the whole thing is dealt with less from the abuses' perspective and more from those delivering the pain. The film, naturally, has a dark dark streak and can be tough to enjoy because of the choice of protagonists, but with the film absolutely littered with voice over, we get to hear every non-sequitor and thought in each character's head, allowing us to feel more for every person involved, but mainly understand the motivations of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) as he descends into kidnap and torture, and soon much worse, for his slice of the American Dream.
Everyone in Pain & Gain has a very grey-looking moral centre, all believing that they are the ones in the right even if all around them is going wrong, and everyone believes that they are the ones who deserve to pursue their happiness, and as it becomes clear that the American Dream is a futile goal that crumbles around within moments, the film finds its best part in the second hour. Each of the co-horts find their slice of happiness, and live it well, for a while. But suddenly they get hungry for more, a taste is nice, a meal is better, and as with anything this leads to a series of miscalculated plans and some rather vile crimes that bring to an end the dream forever.
It's weird to think that the Hollywoodisation of a horrible crime is anything more than castrating and polishing for mass audiences, but with Pain & Gain the actual crimes are absolutely rotten, and those involved were just nasty folk, yet the choice to make them more audience-friendly isn't about making the film mainstream fluff but about delivering a rather dark and thoughtful, if loud, film about what it means to be driven to succeed and strive for more in a world that only gives good things to bad people. For Michael Bay to make a film about excess and superficiality, it feels like Bay knows what kind of filmmaker he is, and how the world perceives him, and is ultimately tackling that perception by accentuating and exaggerating it ten-fold. It would be easy to write off Pain & Gain as a confused, dumb, loud, ill-conceived mess, but I am 100% sure that Bay and crew knew what they were doing and the end result is much more satirical than it is purely entertaining.
Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackie lead the film with aplomb, each get their own big moments and work well as a unit, whilst Ed Harris's detective is a bit undercooked and Tony Shalhoub's tortured millionaire is suitably dickish, and feels like someone in a Coen Brothers movie. In fact, this entire film could be pitched as Michael Bay's Fargo. It's not for everyone, watching it with people in their 50's, there were a few walk-outs and a fair amount of tutting, but if you're in it for the ride, you might just come out laughing.
But seriously, don't ever research the real crimes if you want to enjoy this film.