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'Pain & Gain' (R)

Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson star in 'Pain & Gain'.
Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson star in 'Pain & Gain'.

You can’t quite call Pain & Gain, director Michael Bay’s adaptation of a series of news articles by Pete Collins recounting a horrific Miami crime, a comedy. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely don’t treat the story frivolously: On the page, the movie probably didn’t read funny at all.

But there is a considerable amount of humor in Pain & Gain anyway, because Bay has ingeniously cast his three lead character (lunk-headed bodybuilders on a crime spree that would make the Three Stooges seem smart) with likable actors who play the material straight. When you laugh during Pain & Gain, you’re laughing at their astonishing stupidity and complete lack of self-awareness. These were men who thought of themselves as gods — goons who believed that because of their physical strength, they could take whatever they wanted from people and somehow never be held accountable. Their obliviousness is astounding.

Pain & Gain is the third movie Bay has filmed in Miami. He once again makes the city look like a paradise, but this time with a dark underbelly filled with shady criminals. The director has also slowed down his editing rhythms to allow us to focus on the characters. Yes, there is the obligatory shot of characters walking away from a fireball, but it’s a pretty small explosion, and aside from a brief action sequence, the movie is character-driven. Who would have thought Bay had that in him?

Although the movie is a change of pace for Bay, his sledgehammer, politically incorrect approach remains intact. There are homophobic swipes, sexist gags and racist caricatures (Ken Jeong plays a motivational speaker). Pain & Gain is not a movie for the squeamish or the easily offended. But there’s no meanness behind the jokes, because you’re laughing at the stupidity of the people who say them, not the slurs themselves.

The film simplifies what was a complicated case. Wahlberg, who plays ringleader Daniel Lugo, lures two others — Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a composite of several others in the case, and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) — to join him in his plan to kidnap a wealthy businessman (Tony Shalhoub) and hold him hostage in a warehouse, torturing him until he finally signed over his home and bank accounts.

Lugo’s argument is that they all deserved to enjoy the American Dream, so why not take it from others? Their spree might have ended there — Doorbal even married a woman (Rebel Wilson) and began leading a domestic life — if Doyle hadn’t squandered his share of the loot on cocaine and desperately hatched another plan to steal money.

Pain & Gain is an unusual, genre-defying movie — this is at heart a crime drama, but told through the prism of absurdist humor — and the story gets so wild, including a dim-bulb stripper who believes she’s working for the CIA, that a title card flashes late in the film to remind you “This is still a true story.” The movie follows the case to its end, and with the exception of Ed Harris as a detective who becomes intrigued by the case, and Johnson, whose innate likability helps keep you engaged, practically all the nonvictim characters are detestable. This is easily Bay’s best movie, the work of a filmmaker with a cracked sense of humor that he is able to share with the audience. A long scene in which the ’roided-out gang tries to murder a hostage and fails repeatedly recalls a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain in which Paul Newman and Julie Andrews discover how hard it is to kill a man. The difference is that Hitchcock played the scene for suspense: Pain & Gain plays it for uneasy laughs.

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong.

Director: Michael Bay.

Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely. Based on the articles by Pete Collins.

Producers: Michael Bay, Ian Bryce, Donald De Line.

A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 130 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, nudity, sexual situations, drug use, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.