Michael Bay decided to take a break from staging armageddons and make a smaller, $25 million personal project called "Pain & Gain."
In this case it's a pitch-black, violent retelling of a true-life story that finds a pair of steroidal knuckleheads kidnapping a rich businessman, torturing him, taking him for everything he's got, only to see things go spectacularly wrong after the fail to kill their prisoner.
Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson play the bodybuilders behind the "Fargo"-like caper, only in place of the Coen Brothers' wintery snowscape, "Pain & Gain" unfolds in Florida — a sunny setting that's perfect for the many girls in skimpy bikinis who populate the Bay oeuvre.
"Pain & Gain" opened Friday and scored a mediocre 48 percent "rotten" rating on the critics aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
TheWrap's Leah Rozen was one of those critical voices who found much to praise in Bay's look at criminal incompetence.
"Wonders never cease. Director Michael Bay has made a movie that’s more than just loud," Rozen wrote in something of a backhanded compliment. "His latest, 'Pain & Gain,' is an entertaining moral spoof about three lunkheads pursuing their own twisted version of the American Dream. The film is fun, fast and funny, but also a bloated 20 minutes or more than it needs to be."
Like Rozen, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty found "Pain & Gain" to be a welcome change of pace from the giant robots and explosions.
"Initially, their Keystone Kops-on-creatine act is hilarious, and Bay seems liberated by the larky lightness of the film," Nashawaty wrote. "Don't get me wrong, he's still Michael Bay — he doesn't waste any opportunity to show a close-up of some bikini-clad babe's thong-cleaved derriere — but this smart, scaled-down new direction feels fresher than his usual cocktail of fireballs and bombast."
A.O. Scott of the New York Times found some aspects of Bay's approach to the material galvanizing but faulted the film for taking less of a moral position on the crimes committed by its central gym rats.
"The movie and, by implication, those of us watching it are no better than these guys," Scott wrote. "I found that unspeakably insulting and also impressive."
Slate's Dana Stevens was less generous in her appraisal. She wrote that at some moments the film's satire of American consumerism is cogent, but that "Pain & Gain" also suffers from narrative incoherence.
"I find that my thumb is wavering at half-mast," Stevens wrote. "I’m still not sure whether to mildly like or mildly hate this movie."
If Stevens had trouble sifting through her varied responses, Claudia Puig of USA Today had little difficult giving voice to her disdain for Bay's picture.
"Bay's 'Pain & Gain' is a badly constructed, blood-spattered caper that comes unglued early on," Puig wrote. "Known for the Transformers franchise and other vapid big-budget box office smashes like Armageddon, Bay is not deft enough to pull off this movie's darkly comic tone and bloody mayhem."
Of course, Puig's assessment looks like a rave when stacked up against that of the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern.
Michael Bay's absurdist comedy is all pain, no gain and an utter monstrosity," Morgenstern said. "It may be the most unpleasant movie I've ever seen, and I'm not forgetting 'Freaks,' which 'Pain & Gain' resembles, come to think of it."