Michael Bay is notorious for his superficial approach to filmmaking -- it is all about looks. Give him a World War II epic, a catastrophic event, or a terrorist plot for destruction and he just skims the surface of the human condition. Give him jacked up, directionless, simple-minded body builders, and he gives you characters you can't help but be invested in. Before I get too carried away and you get the wrong idea, this is still a Michael Bay movie, just with a little bit more to offer than a popcorn action movie.
Mark Whalberg and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson play extremely well together. The two characters were two different people living similar lifestyles. Both characters had a criminal past, both devote their life to fitness, but one is a narcissistic egomaniac whom only cares for himself, and the other is a born-again recovering addict who just wants to live the clean life. There is a third character, played by Anthony Mackie, who was the least interesting of the bunch. Ed Harris also shows up and I enjoyed every minute he was on screen. He plays a great old-guy-but-could-still-kick-your-ass type.
The flow of the movie is not what you'd expect from a Michael Bay film. He stepped back from the grandiose panoramic shots that he is known for and kept the actors a little tighter in the frame. The most interesting thing here is that he has borrowed at least two things from Martin Scorsese's pallet. There is a scene with a long complex shot that was quite stylish and probably took some choreographing, but the way the shot pans out, there is likely some digital intervention. The other thing is the narration. It is much like the movie Casino where all the key players would often narrate the scenes they were in to provide background or substance to what you were seeing. There was also a lot of motion stopping with text to accentuate the introduction to all the key players; you know, that thing they used to do with Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner where it would pause the action just to tell you who you were watching, just done in a more stylish way.
For a movie that was set in the 90s, and often reminded you with date stamping at the start of many scenes, it sure didn't feel much like the 90s. There didn't seem to be a conscious effort to be true to the times. The scenes where people had cell phones were the most blatant. Not a single one of them appeared to have an antenna or appear to be heavy hardware.
The other thing that took you out of the times was the very modern-sounding musical score. The score was good and fit the tone of the film, but this is based on a true story. I would have preferred they either made more of an effort to fictionalize it so they could modernize the story, or be more diligent to make the style more akin to that of a 90s movie. There was a scene where the Coolio classic "Gangsta's Paradise" was played, and then there was a scene where Jon Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" was used -- both odd selections as they were famous soundtrack songs for other movies.
This movie is funny, but in a peculiar way. It is paced really well. It is nice to see a Bay movie where it doesn't take itself so seriously. The baffling thing is how dark the subject matter could be. Again, this is a true story that deals with abduction and murder, and it turns it into a playful story. As real and true the events may have been in real life, it may have been in better taste to sensationalize it a little more and remove itself from reality a bit. People's lives were ruined by these men, and they made a movie that puts real bad guys as the protagonists. So many films with a heist or robbery sub-plot always focuses on some sort of deep-rooted need, such as the need for drugs or the need for revenge. These crimes were not fueled by narcotics or a desire to take an eye for an eye; it is the result of narcissism meets adrenaline.
Guys will get a kick out of the testosterone-laden antics and humour, while girls will likely tolerate it for the jacked-up lead characters. I enjoyed the movie. It was a little long and the end didn't play out like a Hollywood ending, but I was entertained for two hours. This won't challenge you emotionally, mentally, or physically, but it also won't challenge your attention span. It is extremely digestible and fun.