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By T.T. Stern-Enzi

“Pain & Gain” won the weekend box office race, earning the pole position with a smidge less than $20 million dollars. Not exactly a blistering opening weekend pace, especially for a director like Michael Bay who is known for turbo-charged action-oriented vehicles like “Bad Boys” and its sequel, “Armageddon,” and “The Transformers” franchise. There is a difference with “Pain & Gain” though because this new outing traffics in the realm of true crime with a story that’s ripped from the headlines, which requires a certain finesse not associated with Bay’s loud muscle cars.

Based on a three-part Miami New Times series written by Pete Collins back in 1999, the strange tale investigates a crew of fitness trainers at the Sun Gym who look for a shortcut to the American Dream that veers far off the straight and narrow into kidnapping, extortion and murder. It is not just the dark violence and steroid-driven twists that define the situation, but also a breakdown in the policing of the case that inspires questions about how something like this could happen in a major American city.

Intriguingly, Bay and the screenwriting team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (“The Chronicles of Narnia” series, “Captain America: The First Avenger”) set contrasting elements against one another, which starts right off the bat with the casting. The muscle-bound trio of performers (Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson) is not necessarily known for imposing screen personas.

Wahlberg has ventured into the true crime netherworld before (think “Boogie Nights”), but he was more a bumbler there and he’s stumbling down that same path again here as Daniel Lugo, the ringleader of what became known as the Sun Gym Gang. Mackie is the dimmest of the dim bulbs in this “Three Stooges” power pack (who will hopefully fare better as The Falcon in Markus and McFeely superhero follow-up “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”). Yet, it is Johnson who gets the best opportunity to gain from the pain on display here. His character is a violent ex-con with a history of substance abuse who turns to religion to get himself back on the right path, but the road is devilishly slick, offering him no traction – spiritual or otherwise. It is the one true standout able to withstand the pain inflicted in the frames.

But, if “Pain & Gain” is really all about Bay, what does it say – or prove – about him? Is this a new and improved version of the much-maligned helmer or just another piece of evidence in the case against him?

The old Bay hasn’t left the building. Even with a budget that probably only covers craft services for “The Transformers,” Bay’s visual sensibilities tend to over-reach. Light and color blind us – of course, with a film set in Miami, that’s no sin. And when the action ratchets up, Bay delivers in his trademark fashion, yet instead of going big-scale, he rips through flesh and bone. Bodies suffer, but there’s something fitting about it, since we’re in a pumped up milieu.

And while there is a strong link in terms of Bay’s old bag of tricks, “Pain & Gain” dares to open things up in surprising ways. For the first time, a Michael Bay film features references to other filmmakers. The look and feel here recalls Tony Scott’s “Domino” in spots and there are even trace elements of Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and “U-Turn” with the mix of violence and super-saturated frames, but in the hands of Bay, the tricks never seem to be deployed towards a purpose or goal. “Pain & Gain” is savant-like true crime satire, a curiously remarkable departure, but one unlikely to point to an intentional movement to something new.