Swift shot: This is a true story, and yes it is also tragically funny. It’s hard to explain how it made me feel, because as Michael Bay put it, “I want people to be conflicted.” Well, that about sums up how I feel . . . conflicted. One one hand you have a bizarre comedy about Americans that want it all without putting in the hard-work, and on the other hand you have a true crime that affected real people in the South Florida community. Is this a good film? Yes. Is this a horrible story? Yes. Will you find yourself laughing several times? Yes. Is this a ground-breaking film? Yes! I am struggling to come up with a true story that is as dark and tragic as it is horribly funny that was made into a film. I am drawing a blank. There are many dark comedies that are pure fiction, and I have no problem laughing at those. But in the case of Pain & Gain, they kept reminding us that “this is a true story.” Real people died.
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is not a normal person. In his mind, he is an exceptional physical specimen that demands respect and royalties from life. To see someone making more than he does, without really putting in much effort, grates on him. And in Miami Beach, the discrepancies over the haves and have-nots is crystal clear. Lugo wants to live the American dream . . . to the Max!
After serving a short stint in prison for some kind of ponzi scheme on old folks, his career options are pretty limited. He comes across the Sun Gym and notices the need of gym owner, John Mese (Rob Corddry). His gym is filled with ‘old floaters’ and Lugo promises to not only sexy up the place but to triple membership in a month! Mese can’t resist giving the con a shot. Lugo simply gives free waxes to new members and gives free membership to strippers . . . voila!
Lugo’s gym-rat friend, Dorable (Anthony Mackie) is like the pup circling his boss, essentially worshiping at the Lugo altar, and he also wants more out of life. He wants a large woman for which he can provide a house and a family. Enter Rebel Wilson, of course. Rebel provides most of the pure comedy in the film as juicy, penis nurse Robin, and fans of hers won’t be disappointed in the least. She even manages to add some real depth to an otherwise character-actor role.
Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub) is one of the ‘haves’ of South Beach. Not only does he have it, he enjoys rubbing in your face the fact that you DON’T have it . . . and probably never will, because you aren’t willing to do what it takes. I have watched EVERY episode of Monk, and I can set your fears at Bay (as in Michael Bay) that you will NOT see Kershaw as Monk within seconds of his on screen introduction. Credit to Director Bay for making his entrance do exactly that: break the Monk mold. Shaloub is one of my favorite actors, since Wings even, and he deserves some kind of accolades for pulling off a credible creep in Kershaw. He’s a character that is easy to root both for and against with mere seconds apart.
Lugo spends a lot of time thinking about self-improvement, as he puts it, “I believe in America, I believe in fitness.” One evening he falls for self-made millionaire pitch-man, Johnny Wu’s seminar (played by the mad-Korean, Ken Jeong) and it changes his life, and many other lives . . . forever. Once a new hire at the gym enters his circle though, fantasy becomes reality as he starts to plan something sinister and real. Paul Doyle (The Rock) is also an ex-con with a bizarre personality as a born-again Christian teetotaler that frequents strip clubs and is easily swayed by Lugo’s charms as the master mind. This might be one of the rare times The Rock gets to show off his acting muscles without primarily relying on his muscles . . . or his trademark eyebrow. He manages to go from a reformed ex-con, born-again Christian, to a full-on coke fiend with a sociopathic decline.
No true story about a gym would be complete without a gym-bunny, and Bar Paly provides the perfect “American” woman of the nineties. Sorina Luminata is an illegal-immigrant and rebel without a clue, coming from Romania by way of Mexico. She unwittingly, and it has to be unwittingly, because if she had half a wit, she’d be a half-wit, gets tricked into the team. Lugo convinces her that he is “with the government” and asks her to serve her new country with him in the CIA.
With the team all assembled, they set out to kidnap Kershaw and make him sign away all his possessions to Lugo, and he will share it with the rest of his crew. This is where Shaloub shines, as there are several botched attempts to kidnap Kershaw, and when they finally do get him, they are so sloppy and ill-prepared for just how strong-willed this half Colombian half Jew is! His family survived the Nazis, and he is not an easy mark. While his torture is hard to watch, it is actually hilarious at the same time, as certain toys are used on him that you might never associate with torture . . . well, some of you sickos might! If you’ve ever seen Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag, you’ll see what I mean how torture could be funny. The Lugo, or Sun Gym, crew gets creative, and Michael Bay let the cast do some improvisation in these scenes that is sure to leave a mark.
As inept as they were at kidnapping Kershaw, they are WORSE at killing him! You might think it would be easy to kill someone, and just like anything in life, you need the right tools . . . and the right operator. In this case, they had some interesting choices for how they were going to kill Kershaw, but they always managed to screw it up! Finally convinced that Kershaw is dead, they move on.
Kershaw wakes up in a hospital and is pretty mangled, but he is alive. Because he is half Colombian, and this was the 90s, the Miami-Dade cops aren’t buying his ridiculous story. They leave him in the hospital to rot! The Lugo crew finds out he is alive and, yet again, they try to kill him. But, this time he manages a miracle of what would only ever be believed in a “convenient writing” scenario as Kershaw picks up a phone book in the hospital and calls DuBois Detective Agency.
Thing is, DuBois has been retired for a long time, but he does eventually take the case. That is what was so unbelievable, here is a detective that ends up taking a case because he is bored. His client has no money, because he signed it all away to Lugo. DuBois (Ed Harris) takes the case more for something to do besides golfing and fishing. Harris is a freaking monster actor, with a tiny part he manages to become this character with a wry attitude and Miami style.
With DuBois on the case, it is really only a matter of time before he puts all the pieces together. He can’t believe it himself, and this was a guy who both retired from the police force and his own detective agency. To put it simply, he’s not easily surprised, but this case managed to do just that. It’s why the film should leave you conflicted. He does try to warn the Miami-Dade police that these guys will strike again, even though they believe the gang is just a fiction of this “Colombian” who probably pissed off the cartel.
The Lugo crew are an odd bunch of players. Sorina is convinced she is working with CIA and her partner is Doyle. Doyle is convinced that he is protected by God and can do as much cocaine as South Beach can pump up his nose. Dorable is convinced that he is a good provider for his girl, and they do get a small house in a nice neighborhood. Lugo himself is convinced that he DESERVES greatness, because that is what America is all about. Thing is, they are ALL wrong! Their combined delusions of grandeur eventually catch up to them, and no amount of grilled evidence can keep them unscathed.
Michael Bay got his start in Miami with Bad Boys, and he has a not-so-secret love affair with the city and people. I asked him at the Press Junket in South Beach if he would be making more films here. Based on his answer, it is clear he will. He may have a hard time finding a story so incredibly dark yet so terribly funny again in his career that is actually a true story. But, as the saying goes . . . “Welcome to Miami, Bitch!”
Again, if this weren’t a true story, it would be hilarious and most people would call it brilliant writing. But, in this case, the architects of the inane events were actual inept criminals that destroyed many lives with their get-rich quick devious schemes. How did I feel about it? Conflicted . . . but hell if I wasn’t laughing throughout!
Check out our other review for Pain & Gain: