PAIN AND GAIN: 3.5 STARS

“Pain and Gain,” the new Michael Bay crime movie, has a few things going for it. First, there isn’t a robot in sight. Secondly, there is a great cast who brings serious star power, and third, it doesn’t really feel like a Michael Bay film. And by that I mean there’s only one shot of the three leads walking away from a slow motion explosion.

Near the beginning a voiceover says, “Unfortunately, this is based on a true story.” It’s the real-life tale of three Miami-based body builders (Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie) chasing the American Dream. Pumped up and steroid crazy they abduct a prominent local businessman (Tony Shalhoub). They beat and torture the self-made millionaire until he signs over all his wealth -- houses, cars, boats and money. The story eventually becomes so outlandish Bay flashes up a graphic in the last half hour reminding us that this is “still a true story.”

This is a seriously weird movie. It’s Bay working with a tiny -- for him -- budget of just $26 million. The guy has made commercials that cost more than that, but has delivered the darkest comedy -- imagine if the Coen Brothers did gruesome slapstick -- to come down the pike in a while.

Playing somewhere like an episode of “CSI: Miami” performed by the Three Stooges, the story of a trio of greedy dumb criminals -- and they don’t get much more stupid than this gang who couldn’t shoot straight -- is violent, funny and unpredictable. The only thing you know for sure is nothing is going to go as planned.

It’s not understated, but then did you expect a movie directed by Bay and starring the world’s most famous wrestler to be subtle? Any idea of building a thematic treatise around the corrupting powers of the American Dream of wealth and power is thrown out the window early on in favor of Bay’s fixation with the absurd aspects of the story.

Instead it’s a wild ride that cruises along for over two hours -- which is maybe 20 minutes too much -- with the usual Bay touches -- negligible roles for women and stylish photography that makes every shot look like it was ripped from a GQ layout -- featuring likeable actors playing unlikable people.

It’s tough to make a funny movie about people who heartlessly kill innocent people. Bay cast well, finding actors who bring goodwill with them, and keep the audience on side even as the tone of the movie turns dark -- or as dark as Bay can ever get with his stylish, glittering images.

As the ringleader of this funky bunch, Wahlberg plays a guy whose “heroes are all self-made: Rocky, Scarface and the guys from ‘The Godfather’.” He’s stupid, but doesn’t know it, and Mark shows how being a dim bulb with grandiose ideas can turn dangerous.

After a long series of unrewarding supporting roles Anthony Mackie gets a chance to shine and Shalhoub does impressive work, but the stand out is Johnson who finally has a role that marries his physicality to his impeccable comic timing.

“Pain and Gain” doesn’t scrimp on the violence and the nastiness of the story, but tempers it with some of the best gore gags this side of Tarantino. Case in point, Wahlberg ordering The Rock to “grill these fingerprints” off some decapitated hands. If you can stomach that, buy a ticket. If not, the next “Transformers” movie is set to be released next year.

 

THE BIG WEDDING: 1 STAR

“The Big Wedding” is the kind of movie you only buy a ticket for when everything else is sold out. You arrive at the theatre at 7:30, hungry for popcorn because you missed lunch, only to discover that “42,” the movie you really wanted to see, is packed. Ditto for “The Croods,” “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and even “Jurassic Park 3D.”

Then you see a poster for “The Big Wedding” and notice it stars Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton and that nice boy from “That 70s Show.”

“How bad can it be?” you think.

I’m here to tell you how bad it can be.

In a bit of farce that, no doubt, has Moliere spinning in his grave, the movie has at its wizened dark heart an elaborate ruse. Alejandro (Ben Barnes) is the adopted son of a long divorced couple, Don (Robert De Niro) and Elle (Diane Keaton). Don is now happily living with Elle’s former best friend Bebe (Susan Sarandon). Al’s planned wedding to Missy (Amanda Seyfried) is going to be a big affair, but there’s a hitch. His devoutly Catholic mother is coming over from Columbia for the visit, and Al fears she won’t give her blessing to the marriage if finds out that Don and Elle are divorced, so he asks them to masquerade as a married couple for the weekend.

There’s more. Lots more. Topher Grace is the 29-year-old virgin doctor son who falls for Alejandro’s sister. Katherine Heigl is a sour-faced lawyer and Robin Williams plays a priest.

The supporting characters sound like the set-up to an old joke -- a doctor, a lawyer and a priest walk into a bar! -- except that there’s nothing remotely funny about any of them.

It’s frustrating not because it isn’t funny, but because it wastes the talents of almost everyone involved. Forevermore when anyone tells me that De Niro is the greatest actor of his generation, my mind will flash back to his most painful scene, a bit of slapstick on a diving board. Maybe I’m in denial, but I chose to remember the good times.

The set-up sounds family friendly -- everybody loves a wedding, especially grandma! -- but the movie is far from it. Language and nudity make it inappropriate for kids, and the general lack of anything else makes it a no-go for everybody else.

With a story as imaginative as the title and “jokes” telegraphed so far in advance you need binoculars to see them coming, “The Big Wedding” is as appealing as a cash bar at the reception. It’s bad even for a Katherine Heigl movie.

 

THE COLONY: 3 STARS

Canadians who were still digging themselves out of winter’s bounty in late March might feel a bit better after seeing “The Colony,” a new sci-fi thriller starring Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Zegers and Bill Paxton. “The truth is,” we’re told by way of narration, “one day it started to snow and it never stopped.”

The movie takes place in a modern ice age. Survivors found refuge from the ice and snow far underground in places like Colony 7, a community run with an iron fist by former military man Briggs (Fishburne). The colony is divided along red and blue state lines -- the liberal approach to governing from Briggs, versus a more practical reality espoused by Mason (Paxton), a gun touting enforcer whose catchphrase is, “We need to be tougher!”

The underground ecosystem is fragile at best. “It’s not the cold we need to worry about, it’s each other,” says Sam (Zegers).

An uneasy truce between Briggs and Mason holds until a routine call to Colony 5 goes unanswered. Briggs takes a two-man team -- Sam and Graydon (Atticus Dean Mitchell) -- to truck across the blustery tundra to investigate. While they’re gone things at Colony 7 go all “Lord of the Flies,” but it’s an even worse situation at Colony 5.

“The Colony” makes good use of the situation to build atmosphere and tension by using the icy outside and the claustrophobic interiors (it was shot at the decommissioned North American Aerospace Defense Command base in North Bay, Ontario) to good advantage. Shadows and creepy sounds stand-in for elaborate special effects, but when the going gets bloody old school nasty action effects—like a bisected bad guy skull -- are effective and cringe inducing.

On the downside, “The Colony” has many of the standard plot devices used in sci-fi thrillers -- who doesn’t see the sacrifice of the metaphorical red shirt coming? -- and the ultimate survivors just happen to be the good-looking ones who escape to Adam and Eve it up elsewhere. But it makes up for its deficiencies with some excellently feral cannibals and an ending that while hopeful, is still bleaker and cooler than we might expect if this was a big Hollywood movie.