Pain & Gain


Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo
Dwayne Johnson as Paul Doyle
Anthony Mackie as Adrian Doorbal
Tony Shalhoub as Victor Kershaw
Rebel Wilson as Ramona Eldridge
Ed Harris as Ed Du Bois
Rob Corddry as John Mese
Bar Paly as Sorina Luminita
Ken Jeong as Johnny Wu

Directed by Michael Bay

“Pain & Gain” is a film that even those who don’t like Michael Bay might love. Thanks to strong performances by Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson, the true story is engaging. But the realization that this black comedy is based on real murders puts things in perspective.

“Pain & Gain” is based on a true story.

In 1994, Daniel Lugo is a fitness coach and a bodybuilder at a Miami gym. Daniel is driven, ambitious, and likable. However, he’s also deeply unsatisfied with where he is in life. His dissatisfaction is intensified when he starts training Victor Kershaw. The abrasive, egotistical businessman is quite wealthy and it appalls Daniel. So after listening to a ‘get rich quick’ motivational speaker, Daniel decides he’s going to simply take Victor’s fortune away from him in the name of justice and the American dream.

Daniel recruits fellow bodybuilders Paul Doyle (a born-again Christian and ex-con) and Adrian Doorbal (his co-worker) for his scheme. The plan is to kidnap Victor, force him to sign over all of his riches to them, and then profit. Daniel’s perfect crime ends up being colossally stupid yet inexplicably successful, but things quickly spiral out of control for the trio. Unfortunately for them, they don’t have as much brainpower as they do muscle.

“Pain & Gain” is rated R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use.

What Worked:
A couple of days before this screening, I happened to catch a bit of “Armageddon” on TV while channel surfing. I remembered intensely regretting paying money to see it in theaters and seeing it again 15 years later I remembered why. It was a good looking train wreck. And thinking back over Michael Bay’s filmography, I remembered that his “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” was the last film I almost walked out on. (To this day I haven’t walked out in the middle of a film.) Again, it was a beautiful disaster. I think the only Michael Bay film I ever fully enjoyed was “The Rock.” So while I try to go into every screening with an open mind, I wasn’t expecting much from “Pain & Gain.” Imagine my surprise when I walked out of the theater two hours later having actually enjoyed the experience.

“Pain & Gain” has several things going for it. The first is the fact that this is a true story. If it weren’t, the events in the film would be too outrageous to be believable. You’d say, “What hack wrote this?” Yet there it was, actually true. You can still read the original news articles that inspired the film online. That starts you really thinking about what kind of mindset would drive a man to do so many stupid things. You start thinking about all the ways they actually got away with parts of their plan and how amazing that actually was. It’s really a commentary on just how delusional mankind can be and how much wasted potential Daniel Lugo had. It’s just overall an engaging story.

“Pain & Gain” also features excellent casting. Mark Wahlberg carries the film as Daniel Lugo. Not only does he physically fit the bodybuilding character, he has an earnestness and likability that makes you understand why people could look the other way as he literally got away with murder. His character walks a fine line between intelligence and stupidity and Wahlberg gracefully dances back and forth across that line. He is well supported by Dwayne Johnson as Paul Doyle. It’s one of his funnier and more complex roles. Doyle is a good guy deep down, but he’s easily swayed. Yet as a born again Christian, he’s also the epitome of 1 Corinthians 15:33 – “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’” You keep rooting for him to take the high road, yet he follows Daniel Lugo like a puppy. A dim-witted, muscle bound, tattooed, coked-up, murdering puppy. Rounding out the Three Stooges of crime is Anthony Mackie as Adrian Doorbal. Like Doyle, he’s also easily swayed by Daniel. But he has an amusing relationship with Rebel Wilson as Ramona Eldridge. Wilson is not your typical Michael Bay starlet and along with Mackie they make an odd couple. But they do bring some laughs to the story. Rounding out the cast is Tony Shalhoub as Victor Kershaw, Ed Harris as Ed Du Bois. Rob Corddry as John Mese, Bar Paly as Sorina Luminita, and Ken Jeong as Johnny Wu.

Michael Bay is known for a few trademarks in his films. The vast majority of the women are supermodels in skimpy outfits. The men are ridiculously macho. There are cool cars, slow motion action scenes, rock soundtracks, and a camera that is never stationary. And while that quite often tends to be ridiculous, here it serves the story. It’s Miami in the ’90s on the bodybuilding circuit. The story actually plays to Bay’s sensibilities. That’s what may make this more palatable to non-Bay fans than his other films. I don’t think I ever would have paired Michael Bay with a black comedy true story, but it actually works here.

What Didn’t Work:
While much of the film actually works well with Bay’s trademarks, there are other parts that don’t. Bay usually has some awkward scene in his movies where the characters veer straight into over the top awkward comedy. Think of the masturbation scene in “Transformers.” Well, “Pain & Gain” has a similar moment. We see Daniel Lugo conducting a neighborhood meeting with a cocaine fueled Doyle in attendance along with Sorina Luminita in stripper attire. The men of the neighborhood drool over here while Doyle fumbles around and blurts profanities. They then fight over who will get to play out a rape scene with her. It’s just so over the top that it doesn’t fit the ‘true story’ tone of the rest of the film.

The other big issue is that this movie is a comedy. We laugh as Doyle, Daniel, and Adrian commit rather horrific, grisly acts. They do things that would make you sick in the real world, but we giggle and laugh because it’s Wahlberg and Johnson playing silly characters on the screen. But then the credits roll and Bay shows photos of the real men and women who were portrayed in the film. As you see photos of the crime scenes with the credits, it starts to dawn on you that real people were murdered. As rock music plays and the names of the actors are splashed across the screen against photos of 50 gallon drums, you realize that someone’s brother or sister or son or daughter is a real corpse in that barrel. By the time Michael Bay’s name is emblazoned across the screen, you start feeling rather bad that you laughed at real world murders and that they were the subject of a Michael Bay comedy. It’s quite a wakeup call if you actually have a soul.

The Bottom Line:
“Pain & Gain” is definitely worth checking out and it’s arguably one of Michael Bay’s best films, but I would encourage the moviegoer to never lose sight of the fact that it’s a true story despite the fact that it’s played as a comedy on the screen.