'Pain & Gain': Big, brash -- and Bay at his best

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Entertainment,Brian Hughes

Michael Bay knows a little something about excess.

The man who built his career blowing things up -- and then blowing them up again -- has found his perfect muse in this tale of oversized bodybuilders cheating their way to the American dream.

Sure, it's loud. And the characters are dumb. But "Pain & Gain" plays as much like a satire of Bay's previous works as it does delusional fantasies about making it big in America. There's always a fine line between dark comedy and succumbing to the very ideas being mocked. For the most part, Bay hits just the right tone.

It's most definitely a low bar, but this is his most complete work since "The Rock."

On screen
'Pain & Gain'
» Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris and Tony Shalhoub
» Director: Michael Bay
» Rated: R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use
» Running time: 130 minutes

Here is the worldview of our sort-of protagonist Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a Miami gym trainer who opens the movie doing sit-ups while hanging from a billboard: America is the "most buff, pumped-up country on the planet" and "do-ers" here can accomplish whatever they want. That philosophy shapes every bit of mayhem that ensues in this insanely true story. That's all that matters. Barriers be damned.

Lugo concocts a scheme to kidnap a wealthy client (Tony Shalhoub), force him to sign over his massive fortune and then send him on his way with a protein bar. Joining Lugo in the plot are two fellow misunderstood meatheads (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Anthony Mackie). Somehow, the plan works, at least initially, and we're treated to watching a band of misfits adjust to the good life.

With his turn as a coked-out-God-fearing crook, Dwayne Johnson has cemented his crossover status. Let's just permanently drop "The Rock" from his name and forget that whole wrestling period altogether. Johnson, like Wahlberg, has an irresistible comic streak that meshes perfectly with this testosterone-crazed madness. And Shalhoub, most known for his manic compulsiveness in the television show "Monk," excels as an unbreakable schmuck.

Some will recoil from the underlying message, being asked to cheer for a trio of thugs who actually committed atrocious acts in real life. It sounds crazy, but somehow Michael Bay -- the purveyor of all that is vapid in the cinematic world -- forces the audience to wrestle with our own concept of personal success.

Call me a hypocrite. But Bay's parade of scantily clad women, flashy cars and shiny objects has a purpose -- at least I think he's in on the joke this time.

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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