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Pain and Gain

Year: 2013
Studio: Paramount
Director: Michael Bay
Producer: Michael Bay
Writer: Christopher Markus/Stephen McFeeley
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Macie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Peter Stormare

The very concept of a small budget comedy by Michael Bay sounds like a big studio action adventure by Ken Loach. But within minutes you know you're firmly in the grip of Bay's unique vision no matter how many millions he's saving on special effects. The bikinis are tiny, the muscles are huge and the camerawork is frantic.

After Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the idea that Bay's next project would have a small budget was one of the more intriguing movie announcements of 2011. The terms 'Michael Bay' and '$26m budget' didn't seem to belong in the same sentence.

If anything, Pain and Gain proves just how expensive truckloads of military hardware, CGI robots and explosions by the dozen in downtown Chicago cost, because it's full of Bay's signature style without the over-the-top effects.

That means the brawn, action and sizzle are still over the top, but it works for several reasons. First of all, human clothes horse Megan Fox and even Woody Allen-lite Shia Lebeouf could never overshadow giant robots clubbing each other stupid in a movie that gave the human characters little to do.

In Pain and Gain, Bay's first talent is casting. Wahlberg, Johnson, Shalhoub and Mackie are all perfect for their roles, with Wahlberg and Johnson in particular wrangling intriguing characters that play against type while suiting their physicalities perfectly. Wahlberg's more than proven his acting mettle over the last half decade because of movies like The Fighter, We Own the Night and The Departed, and Johnson continues to prove that – for a former wrestler – he has more acting talent and charisma in one fingernail than many of Hollywood's leading men.

The second reason it works is because – again flying in the face not just of Hollywood's current m.o. but Bay's himself – it's an original idea, based on a true story and proving that truth is stranger than any fiction a room full of writers can make up.

Third of all, it's very, very funny. Wahlberg is Daniel Lupo, a gym employee, fitness junkie and an idealist but ultimately an idiot. Through voiceover, we learn that Lupo has himself convinced he's owed a slice of the fame and fortune all around him through a misguided belief in his workout ethic, and because he sees so many people around him who've come into money and success despite their laziness.

With his equally dumb friend Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Johnson), a recovering addict and con who's found Jesus, Lupo hatches a scheme to kidnap their new client Victor (Tony Shalhoub). It's never made quite clear that Victor is a gangster, but he has a huge house and truckloads of money and Lupo and his gang plan to snatch him and force him to sign everything over to them by starving him out.

There's one problem – despite being convinced that their convictions make them unassailable, Daniel, Paul and Adrian are the dumbest criminals in history and it's a miracle they manage to get their hostage to begin with.

When they do, the plot careens all over the place like a Michael Bay car chase, but as the wheels gradually fall off the plan and then the guys proceed to blow all that they've gained through sheer stupidity the laughs keep coming, only slightly hobbled by an aged-looking Ed Harris playing it straight as a retired private detective.

It's full of Bay's bravado and it's the closest he's ever come to irony – the characters are the kind of people he traditionally loves, but in Pain and Gain he's laughing at how ridiculous they are right along with us.

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