Pain & Gain ★★★½

Critics of this film seam eager to point out how much this is a "Michael Bay film", including all of his trademark techniques for framing, editing and overall storytelling. I'm not a Bay apologist, and these critics are not wrong. But in so branding this film in that manner, they've done themselves a huge disservice to what I think may actually be the most well-crafted movie he's ever helmed. Dismissing this film as being without nuance or devoid of any heart is simply a mistake. It's got both.

It's also easily the most enjoyable-to-watch role Mark Wahlberg's had since Boogie Nights. The film showcases what I think are his strongest acting talents, affording him a role that I think he was born to deliver exceptionally well: a balance of self-assured cockiness, misdirected aspirations and mild stupidity. That actually sounds a lot like his role in Boogie Nights, but there's a reason why his character resonates in that film the same way it does here. It's because Wahlberg does have talent, and it's best on display when he's given the right balance of motivation and humour, while being afforded the freedom to play in that space.

Similarly, Dwayne Johnson has more talent than I believe he has been able to present to audiences. That's possibly because of the types of movies available to a huge ex-wrestler, but perhaps also because of some of his own choices. Walking Tall and The Rundown, though both action movies, started to give him a bit more meat to chew on, but it isn't until Pain & Gain that we can actually see his potential. He's funny. He clearly understands how to embrace the heaviness of situations, in moments of desperation and utmost absurdity. He connects, and that's what matters.

That the plot to this film is real lends the whole story a sense of weight, but there's a surreal quality to the way the film is presented - through title card freeze frames and compositional choices - that emphasizes just how bizarre this whole series of events actually is. There are deliberate directing choices that feel distinctly like Michael Bay choices, but it's clear that his vision for this film is decidedly different from his action-centric vehicles. I wouldn't say it's more restrained, but it does seem better-balanced and is delivered in a new voice that feels fresh. The pacing is more akin to a film like Blow or (again) Boogie Nights, a slow burn that becomes more and more intense as the story unravels.

And Pain & Gain is funny. Not in the same way action movies build in laughs between elaborate set pieces, but with genuine character-driven moments that accentuate and punctuate both the motivations of characters and the world they inhabit. But these moments would not be as great as they are were it not for their delivery by the film's cast.

All of this is surprising when you consider it's a screenplay written by the writers of The Chronicles of Narnia and Captain America, and directed by the guy who's become known for elaborate CGI action blowouts.

But it all works really well. And I really hope you don't decide to write this movie off before seeing it like I almost did.