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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Pain & Gain’ gives bad taste a workout

- - Friday, April 26, 2013

"Pain & Gain" is an appropriate name for a movie that inflicts so much of the former on its characters, and, in search of the latter, the audience. It may be the only appropriate thing about this frequently funny but also outlandishly crude and juvenile send-up of mid-1990s body-building culture.

Set in Miami, the movie is a hyper-violent, hyper-crude, hyperactive retelling of the true-enough tale of three body builders who become involved in a complex kidnap and extortion scheme. The body builders here are played with muscular exuberance by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Anthony Mackie — each hilariously dumb in his own way. Tony Shalhoub plays their primary target, and Ed Harris shows up halfway through to sort out the mess they have made.

I'll admit to laughing throughout the film. Yet I can't quite say I entirely enjoyed it, particularly by the end. The movie's humor is vulgar in the extreme — bordering on sadistic, especially as the film progresses. And while the movie's bodily dysfunction humor isn't stopped by the limits of the human anatomy, it was the movie's madcap violence that pushed the envelope the most. The gross-out high jinks that dominate the film's second half frequently test the limits of bad taste: By the time the movie's heroes started feeding severed limbs to pets and grilling body parts to destroy evidence, I found myself cringing as often as I was chuckling.

In many ways the movie is par for the course for director Michael Bay. He quotes himself liberally throughout the movie, featuring a handful of the spiraling low-angle shots that can now only be described as his signatures. And, as in his previous films, he gives his character actors a long comedic leash, allowing each of them to attempt to go as over the top as he does.

I say "attempt" because none quite manage to match Mr. Bay's efforts. Over the last few years he has become known primarily for his direction of gleefully excessive but generally amiable effects spectacles like the Transformers series. But fewer viewers are likely to remember his work on the buddy-cop comedy "Bad Boys II," which featured, among other distasteful shockers, a would-be funny chase scene featuring corpses being thrown from the back of a truck.

"Pain & Gain" picks up where "Bad Boys II" left off. The director's work has always straddled the line between adolescent glee and vulgar cynicism, but in "Pain & Gain" it tips decidedly toward the latter.

Like the Transformers films, the movie is still appealingly and energetically ridiculous. But at times it's as crass as it is amusing. And while it can still be darkly entertaining, it also suggests the limits of the director's approach. Mr. Bay built his reputation on delivering audiences more of just about everything — more explosions, more violence, more bright colors, more swearing, more beautiful women, more robots, more yelling, more loud sounds, more fast cars, more mayhem, more chaos. In "Pain & Gain," Mr. Bay continues his aggressive pursuit of more, but in doing so, suggests he does not know when to stop.

★★1/2

TITLE: "Pain & Gain"

CREDITS: Directed by Michael Bay, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely based on magazine articles by Pete Collin

RATING: R for extreme violence, vulgar humor

RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS