After years of gargantuan big-budget blockbusters, 2013’s Pain & Gain was designed for Michael Bay to dial down his hyperbolic moviemaking tendencies and challenge himself by creating a low-budget character piece. Produced for a minuscule $26 million, it was a brilliant opportunity for Bay to flex whatever genuine directorial chops he possesses, but instead the movie only serves to remind us yet again of Bay’s inherent shortcomings. Rather than an intelligent drama or a comedic hoot, Pain & Gain is caught somewhere in between, resulting in a mean-spirited, repugnant mess that’s a chore to sit through. There are no robots here, but Bay’s visual diarrhoea is all over the screen – the film is every bit as obnoxious and painfully overlong as his Transformers movies. This is not progress.

Set in Miami in the 1990s, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a convicted felon fresh out of prison, turning to personal training and bodybuilding to get his life back on track. Feeling unfulfilled, he attends a self-help seminar featuring infomercial guru Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), which motivates him to take action. Recruiting the help of co-worker Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and born-again heavy Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), Lugo sets his sights on arrogant millionaire Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a new client of Lugo’s at the gym. The trio of would-be crooks kidnap Kershaw, holding him for torture in a warehouse to force the millionaire to sign over his wealth to them. Although their plan is successful and the meatheads begin living the good life of wealth, power and comfort, Kershaw survives the incident, enlisting the help of grizzled private detective Ed (Ed Harris) to take down the men who ruined his life.

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger), Pain & Gain plays out in an interesting fashion, with the film allowing all of the main players to deliver narration at some point. The POV baton is consistently passed around, giving us a window into everybody’s psyches and inner thoughts as the proceedings unfold. It’s a blatant disregard for basic principals of filmmaking, but it’s a creative subversion of the usual narrative rules, and it’s one of a handful of things that actually work. Unfortunately, the film is murdered by its misjudged pacing; it takes forever to get anywhere, as Bay dwells on every last detail of every character and every action. It’s unnecessarily extended and full of superfluous scenes, making this a leaden experience in need of a more judicious editor. Bay has come so far in his career that he ostensibly has full creative freedom, which is a death knell for Pain & Gain. Clocking in at over two hours, it’s at least thirty or forty minutes longer than it needs to be, rendering this a truly punishing viewing experience.

Pain & Gain wears its “based on a true story” label like a badge of honour, with Bay emphasising it at every opportunity. However, the picture makes light heart of what’s in fact a despicable story; in real-life, the main players were pure scumbags who tortured people, destroyed lives, murdered, lied, extorted and kidnapped. Depicting Lugo and Doorbal in a seemingly sympathetic light is a huge error. Admittedly, Bay was apparently aiming for a dark comedy here, which would have been tolerable if only it was done well. Alas, Bay cannot do comedy properly, as evidenced in the Transformers movies. The approach, therefore, is seldom effective. Pain & Gain might have succeeded if it was a powerful drama or a good black comedy, but instead it’s a confusing hodgepodge of unsuccessful humour and ham-fisted drama, demonstrating that Bay simply lacks the intelligence, wit and nuance to do anything profound or insightful. The film is full of his trademark sensibilities, hence instead of subtlety or tastefulness, Pain & Gain is obnoxious and in-your-face, representing yet another example of his engorged creative chutzpah.

Bay definitely made the most of his scant budget, even forgoing a proper director’s salary to keep costs low in order to get the movie made. It’s an impressive move for the filmmaker, who clearly wanted to get in touch with his more earthbound side. No matters its flaws, Pain & Gain is an attractively-produced flick, with hyper-stylised, colourful cinematography that’s thankfully low on shaky-cam. Moreover, the score by Steve Jablonsky is spot-on, representing the only element of the production with a degree of gravitas. Performances, meanwhile, are reasonable, with the actors all acquitting themselves well with the material. Johnson is probably the standout, showing that he has decent acting chops and is willing to poke fun at his tough guy persona. Also worth mentioning is Australian actress Rebel Wilson, who’s criminally underused and gives the film its only effective comedic moments.

If executed well, all of Pain & Gain‘s inherent script flaws – its humorous approach that comes off in hugely bad taste, its jarring structure, its excessive runtime – could have been forgiven. Michael Bay, however, was not the right man for the job. While it’s promising to see Bay tackle a character-oriented film, Pain & Gain devolves into a disgustingly juvenile, uninvolving exercise in self-indulgence. The lack of taste is astonishing here. Pain & Gain is all pain, and you gain absolutely nothing from it.

3.7/10