When considering Dwayne Johnson's cinematic oeuvre, it's helpful to keep one thing in mind: The Rock's movies may not be especially good, but he still makes for an infinitely more likable lead than most of his peers in the action-comedy subgenre. It's doubtful that even the most ardent critics of Tooth Fairy
(a long list that presumably includes nearly everyone who saw Tooth Fairy
) would deny the part-time WWE star's inherent charisma, with his easygoing demeanor and thousand-watt smile providing a vital counterbalance to his imposing physique. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that Johnson's new movie isn't all that bad, despite being directed by Michael Bay. Opposite Mark Wahlberg—who plays Daniel Lugo, a former personal trainer and bodybuilder from Miami currently on death row for crimes he committed in 1995—Johnson plays Lugo’s accomplice Paul Doyle. Doyle is a mostly gentle giant who gets in over his head, but he remains the closest thing the film has to a moral compass. Lugo (whose narrated manifesto includes lines like “The way to prove yourself is to better yourself—that’s the American dream”) decides to be a “doer” after attending a self-improvement seminar. That in mind, he launches a plot to part a wealthy client (Tony Shalhoub) from his considerable fortune. The ensuing hijinks feature all the slow-mo, violence, bottle blondes and casual homophobia we’ve come, resentfully, to expect from Bay. What’s unexpected, however, is that Pain & Gain
occasionally transcends the mindless, bringing to mind the much more nuanced Bernie
in its examination of outwardly likable villains. How many of Bay’s films can be said to rest upon an ideological foundation of any kind? Pain & Gain
tells a story so perfectly suited to its director's music-video aesthetic that it almost seems immaterial whether Bay knows (or cares) that he’s part of the surface-level pursuits his film both glamorizes and laments.