The Number One Movie in America: Pain & Gain
By Sean Collier
April 8, 2020

Walking away from explosion face.

Michael Bay doesn’t generally make unsuccessful movies.

All of his films have been profitable, some staggeringly so. His debut feature as a director, 1995’s “Bad Boys,” pulled in a global tally north of $141 million on a $19 million dollar budget; two “Transformers” films, 2011’s “Dark of the Moon” and 2014’s “Age of Extinction,” crossed the billion-dollar mark at the global box office.

He also doesn’t make cheap movies. Only four pictures in his filmography were completed for less than $100 million; even more humble successes (a relative term in this case) such as “The Island” ($126 million budget, $162.9 million global gross) and “Pearl Harbor” ($140 million budget, $449.2 million global gross) have cost an amount that could finance several dozen Blumhouse horror features.

Just about the only blemishes on Bay’s balance sheet are mid-’10s passion projects. “13 Hours,” one of the only films to have an Oscar nomination rescinded, only pulled in $62 million worldwide. And “Pain & Gain,” a tonally bizarre crime caper by way of a love letter to ’90s Floridian machismo, fell short of $100 million at the global box office. Domestically, it pulled just under $50 million — the smallest figure of any picture directed by the bombastic action king.

It was still a modest success. Its budget was a mere $26 million — Bay and stars Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson chose to skip a salary in favor of back-end earnings which failed to materialize — and it was a one-weekend champ, briefly claiming the title with $20.2 million from April 26-28, 2013, turning a smattering of heads before it was obliterated by the release of “Iron Man 3” the following week.

It’s not hard to understand why “Pain & Gain” didn’t resonate. A true-crime tale oddly reconstructed as a violent-yet-wacky caper, the film follows a trio of South Beach lunkheads — Wahlberg, Johnson and Anthony Mackie — as they attempt to extort a small-time bigwig played by Tony Shalhoub. It has genuine moments of comedy, which are swiftly undercut by off-putting violence. It has nuanced performances, particularly by Mackie and Ed Harris, which are neutralized by the presence of an unlikeable-by-design Wahlberg in nearly every scene.

“Pain & Gain” was a long-simmering project Bay kept pushing as a break from his string of “Transformers” moneymakers. He attempts to flex his artistic side with dramatic composition and “Scarface”-meets-“Miami Vice” style, with middling results. Some sequences work as intended; others miss the mark by miles.

It’s not strictly a bad movie, but it is certainly not a good one.

Bay’s oeuvre is not without merit; “The Rock” is a perfectly serviceable boulder of late-century hyperaction, and even the bloated “Armageddon” has merit as the sort of summer spectacle readymade for a drive-in cinema. But projects like “Pain & Gain” expose whatever weakness remain hidden by the director’s more popcorn-friendly fare. This is a guy that knows his way around robots in disguise and gargantuan pyrotechnics — but not human motivation.

“Pain & Gain” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1982. Please listen and subscribe!

Next time: Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone! Actually, help them, they need guidance..