(Photo: Jaimie Trueblood, Paramount Pictures)
USA TODAY - Memo to director Michael Bay: Stick to movies with massive pyrotechnics and minimally developed characters.
Blending sharp wit and brutality is a tough proposition. Best to leave such a feat in the nimbler hands of Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Guy Ritchie and Martin McDonagh.
Bay's Pain & Gain (** out of four; rated R; opens Friday nationwide) is a badly constructed, blood-spattered caper that comes unglued early on.
Known for the Transformers franchise and other vapid big-budget box office smashes like Armageddon, Bay is not deft enough to pull off this movie's darkly comic tone and bloody mayhem.
In the hands of a smart social satirist, this story of greedy sleazeballs might have been a clever cautionary tale. Or simply funny. Instead, it's crass, overlong and chaotic.
While the story starts with some promise and a couple of good jokes, Pain never attains edgy comedy status. It's not the fault of the actors, an impressive ensemble headed by the engaging Dwayne Johnson. Putting Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilsonand Rob Corddry in the same movie is an inspired notion.
But flashes of humor fade away before the halfway mark, and then the whole enterprise goes off the rails, crashes and burns.
The story of a trio of larcenous bodybuilders is set in Miami in 1995 and is based on a bizarre real-life crime. Fueled by steroids and cocaine, these guys have an exceptionally clumsy way with criminality. Mark Wahlberg plays ringleader Daniel Lugo, who convinces his musclebound pals Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Johnson) to aid and abet a get-rich-quick scheme. It entails the kidnapping and extortion of Victor Kershaw (Shalhoub), a wealthy businessman whom Lugo trains at the gym. After abducting Kershaw, Lugo expects him to calmly hand over all of his worldly assets. Fat chance. When Kershaw resists, Lugo and his chiseled cohorts turn to torture.
Johnson's Doyle is an ex-con who's found religion. Before hooking up with Lugo and Doorbal, he had tried to go legit. The tug-of-war between Doyle's flaring temper, massive strength and Christian values makes for the film's best performance. But it's not enough to save this muddled, misogynistic mess.
Wahlberg's Lugo is buff, egotistical and swayed by the psycho-babble of lame-brained motivational speaker Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong). "Don't be a don't-er,'' Wu exhorts. "Do be a doer.''
Shalhoub's Kershaw is a tenacious guy who refuses to go down without a fight. Then he disappears from the movie for a long stretch - but not for plot-related reasons. Bay takes a wrong-headed turn down seedy side roads marked by gratuitous violence, with some especially malicious nastiness aimed at women. The buff triad smash a guy's head with a barbell, feed a dog a severed human toe, murder a woman with animal tranquilizer and run over someone after setting him on fire. That's just scratching the gruesome surface.
The film's narration is problematic, awkwardly shifting between key players and thwarting any sense of perspective.
What might have been a viable stranger-than-fiction tale is undone by ham-fisted execution, numbingly brutal energy and dim wit. It all makes for plenty of pain and no cinematic gain.
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