Bay’s latest surprisingly more gain than pain

Movie: Pain & Gain; Director: Michael Bay; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Rated: R; My finding: 3 out of 5 stars.

Director Michael Bay is the undisputed master of trash popcorn films. His “Transformers” franchise wholly throws subtlety and character development out the window in favor of endless and countless explosions and robots. His “Pearl Harbor” succeeded only by paying homage to the historical event by also being a national tragedy. Yet here, with “Pain & Gain,” based on a true crime from the mid-1990s in Miami, he has taken his directing in an entirely new direction. In fact, this was the “small film” he has been wanting to make ever since his film career took off with 1995’s “Bad Boys.”

Of course, when we’re talking about a director who thrives on obliterating the senses with volume, misogyny and explosion after explosion, “small film” means something different than it would for a director with a more balanced resume.

The Bay style is fully on display here, but finally with purpose. 1990s Miami is perfectly captured in oversaturated colors, baking in the south Florida sun. It heats the sleaze of the strip-clubs, greed, con-games and torture found in this brutally violent film to a level that can almost be smelled as it washes through the screen.

We meet Daniel Lugo, the real-life personal trainer and small-time con man, as he exercises on the roof of Sun Gym, where he works, just as an unbelievable number of police cars burst on the scene and he starts running. Then he’s smashed into the windshield of one of those police cars and the image freezes. Although we begin toward the end of the story, the rest of it is told in a completely linear manner.

You see, Lugo, played by Mark Wahlberg, in unhappy with his station in life. He says we all started out as the same composite of cells and had endless potential, which most of us waste. He, however, loves fitness and has worked hard to become ripped and to bring others into the field of bodybuilding.

The endless potential doesn’t end just in terms of physique, however. Lugo is also of the impression that he is an intelligent man who can get himself more of the life he feels that he deserves. He wants the life that allows others to see him as he sees himself.

The only problem is that he needs a plan.

A seminar hosted by a complete buffoon – as most get-rich seminars are – named Johnny Wu provides the plan, which is as basic as plain as possible: Get a goal, figure out how to get there, and then do it. Apparently that was an epiphany for Lugo, and he comes up with one.

Tony Shalhoub, of TV’s Monk, plays Victor Kershaw, one rude, self-made Miami millionaire of half-Jewish and half-Columbian heritage with a terribly inflated ego – who just so happens to be a client of Lugo’s at the health club. Apparently being “a hard man to like” is reason enough to lose your entire fortune and suffer every second of the way through.

And suffer is no misspent word. The film almost works as torture porn at places as Kershaw is run over, repeatedly tasered, strung up to a dry-cleaning rail, tweaked with pliers and punched repeatedly in the face for weeks at a time. Lugo doesn’t want just Kershaw’s money and all of his assets – which Kershaw had described in excruciating and self-aggrandizing detail at the gym – but also to ruin him.

But Lugo isn’t all alone. Instead he works as the “mastermind” behind repeated failures perpetrated by himself and two buddies from the gym.

Adrian Doorbal, played by Anthony Mackie, a fellow trainer who looks up to Lugo as a hero since he helped to form his body image for him, is Lugo’s right-hand-man and a willing participant in even the most heinous actions. Paul Doyle, played by Dwayne Johnson, is a man recently let out of prison with a former cocaine problem who trying to reform himself in surrounding himself in his devout Christian beliefs. But Doyle admits that Miami is a place “full of temptation.”

The film features only one explosion, which factors in at about 1 percent of Bay’s average for his films, but it counts and it is almost self-parodying. If Bay were always held to a $26 million budget which, once again, is miniscule in the very large world of Michael Bay then perhaps he would be forced to focus more often on aspects of filmmaking he has neglected over the years.

“Pain & Gain” is far from perfect. Bay’s extremely stylistic brand still often overshadows more subtle effects of the stories. There are also pacing issues that lead to a few relatively dull moments that didn’t need to be included and would have pared the over-two-hour runtime down to size. Still, in the grand view of things Bay has taken a grand stride in the right direction and has allowed a quirky sensibility of fun to seep through. I can only imagine it was refreshing for him to do something unexpected like his “small film,” and it really shines through.

Here’s to wishful thinking that this very bankable director has much success with this film, and that this will sway studios into not pigeon-holing him as “the explosion guy,” as I, against my critical wishes, had as well. This is no great film but it is a shimmer of hope for something better to come.

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)