Pain & Gain

Michael Bay
Mark Whalberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shaloub
The Setup: 
Three bodybuilders kidnap and torture a guy to take his money.

I like true crime, especially when the criminals are stupid, and I like looking at bodybuilders. Boom, there I am at Pain & Gain, an attempt for Michael Bay to scale-down his effects and budget, for which he apparently agreed to direct a fourth Transformers film. What usually gives texture to true crime films is the directorial point of view on the proceedings, giving you something like my beloved Honeymoon Killers, which makes a sociological study of them, or High Life, which finds them amusingly dim, and here where... there just seems to be little judgement, as we know that Bay himself loves big bucks, big cars and big boobs. Which kind of becomes what is interesting (moderately) about the movie, that it seems he can completely get behind their greedy ambitions, and is a little bit in awe of their chutzpah at getting there.

We open with Whalberg as Danny Lugo, doing crunches as the SWAT teams arrive. We flash back to the whole story from there. He was a trainer at Sun Gym in Miami, with this uber-douche Kershaw as a client. He trained Kershaw as they guy constantly bragged about his house, his money, his boat, his offshore accounts. Danny hears a motivational speaker diving people into "doers and don'ters," and decides that he is a doer. He begins to hatch a scheme in which he will kidnap Kershaw and torture him until he signs over all of his assets. He brings in Anthony Mackie as Adrian and Dwayne Johnson as Paul, who is a reformed cokehead who has found Jesus. They set about various schemes to kidnap Kershaw, showing us three out of an actual six attempts, one of which included them wearing cheap Halloween costumes. They finally get him, and take him to their hangout, and essentially begin torturing him. Details of the case include wrapping his head in duct tape, and beating him with dildos, two elements that are in the movie, yet somehow don't really stick. Kind of like everything here.

Eventually they get him to sign over his house and property, and Lugo's boss at the gym comes on as an unwitting accomplice by notarizing the signatures while not being present. Danny moves into Kershaw's house and starts being active on the neighborhood watch in order to blend in. Paul starts hitting the coke again and takes up with an actress who thinks that he, and Danny, are CIA agents. The detail that she sees no conflict between Lugo being on parole and simultaneously a CIA agent is lost on her. Adrian has taken up with a nurse who specializes in sexual rehabilitation for bodybuilders affected by steroids. They try to kill Kershaw, who essentially proves unkillable. The series of articles that this movie was adapted from makes clear that if only they had actually killed him, they would have gotten away with everything. Kershaw hires Ed Harries as a PI to look into the case. Soon Paul is out of money, and tries a few hare-brained schemes to steal some, and is back at Danny's door, wanting to kidnap yet another guy.

They do, this other fellow who... I forgot exactly who he was, but they take him back to Adrian's house, where he sees right through Danny as not being a real businessman, which ends up with him being beaten, which ends up with his semi-accidental death, which ends up with his wife's semi-accidental death, which causes the guys to have to cut off the victims' hands and put them on the barbecue to roast off the fingerprints. There's a bit more running around, but not long til the police put it all together and we're back to the beginning, with Lugo and team getting arrested. There's a short snippet of trial, then the movie ends with the typical summation of their sentences and where they are now.

Even as I'm writing this, I'm thinking "Okay, they're roasting victim's hands on the barbecue, and I can't believe how little impact it had." It's really curious how this movie seemingly had no point of view. Or... an extremely non-judgmental point of view? It's hard to tell. I just know that I think of individual little moments and think "Wow, that's crazy!" but as to the overall story, eh, interesting enough. It begins, proceeds, and ends without gathering much resonance or making much of a statement. For all the talk in the movie of "the American Dream," and all the many shots that feature American flags, there doesn't seem to be much of a statement here. Danny wants to be a winner, he thinks he deserves what rich guys have but doesn't feel he needs to earn it... okay, then what? Maybe it's just a shallow view that doesn't have much depth or interest to offer? It's unlikely, given his history, that Bay has created an extremely sophisticated movie that succeeds precisely by withholding comment and judgment, but it's kind of enough to make you wonder. Except that the movie can't be said to completely "succeed."

Anyway, not boring, and typically shot with professionalism and with crisp, bright colors. It's a little more interesting than reading the articles (I've read the articles), and it won't hurt you, but... it ends up as a bit of a puzzler.

Should you watch it: 

If you want, there are better true crime movies, but few with as many muscles.