The one thing critics tend to give director Michael Bay credit for is having his finger on the pulse of the movie-going public. Maybe you hate the “Transformers” pictures, maybe his “Pearl Harbor” makes you retch, but you gotta acknowledge the guy’s sense of what the audience wants.
Until now, anyway. Because now, Michael Bay has made “Pain &Gain,” an aggressively bloody comedy-thriller practically engineered to drive audiences away.
It’s not just that “Pain &Gain” indulges in black humor, or queasily bases its story on an unpleasant true kidnapping and murder spree (it happened in Miami in the mid-1990s).
Bay also commits the sin of taking Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — such nice young men — and trashing all the good will they’ve built up recently.
That will be tough for unprepared audiences to forgive. So, just to prepare you: Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, an ambitious personal trainer who drags his co-worker Adrian (Anthony Mackie) into a feebly conceived scheme to bilk a rich dude (Tony Shaloub, from TV’s “Monk”) out of his fortune.
Johnson plays a born-again, newly sober ex-con who agrees to help with the kidnapping. Everything’s broad in the opening reels, as the slapstick piles up and Bay indulges in his customary brand of frathouse humor.
If you recall Bay’s “Bad Boys” movies, you probably have the style: sweet cars, buff guys, small bikinis (on the women, that is) and lots of damage to bodies.
The latter continues to be played for laughs even after a couple of corpses pile up. We hadn’t particularly liked these dead folks, but we hadn’t disliked them either, and Bay is no Tarantino when it comes to mixing gory violence and comedy.
As we watch these nitwits do one dumb thing after another, it’s clear that “Pain &Gain” means to get some of its punch from the fact that this stuff actually happened.
That’s not enough to excuse Bay’s failure to find any consistent tone for putting the movie across, and tone is everything with dicey material like this.
If it weren’t for the small roles played by Ed Harris and Emily Rutherford, as a private detective and his wife, the film would be so morally vacant as to be sociopathic.
Meanwhile, Bay spices things up with lavish shots of characters absorbing so much abuse their saliva flies across the screen in slow-motion, a visual strategy that gives new meaning to the term “spit take.”
One footnote: Wahlberg’s performance, as a super-earnest master manipulator who gets others to carry out his ideas, could possibly be interpreted as a portrait of an over-achieving but tasteless movie director. Someone like Michael Bay, perhaps.
I doubt the parallel is intentional, but it was fun to think about as this movie ground on, and on, and on.
“Pain &Gain” (1½ stars)
The true story of a mid-1990s kidnapping and murder is played for tasteless black comedy, as director Michael Bay appears intent on offending the audience at every plot turn. Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson play the leading morons in this fumbled attempt at edginess.
Rated: R for violence, language, nudity.
Showing: Alderwood 7, Cinebarre, Everett, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.