Here’s what’s so insane about Pain and Gain, the Michael Bay movie about three bodybuilders who tortured, kidnapped, and murdered as part of elaborate schemes to force their wealthy victims to transfer their assets over to them: It’s based on a true story. But Pain and Gain is not the variety of Hollywood film “inspired” by a true story, where the screenwriter takes a kernel of truth, blows it up, and embellishes it. In fact, the film version of events is only part of the truth.
Screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus adapted Pete Collins exhaustive and bizarre account of the crimes of Daniel Lugo and Adrian Doorbal not by stretching the truth, but by condensing it. There are, of course, a number of Hollywood contrivances inserted; the character played by Dwayne Johnson is largely a composite of other characters; everyone is much, much better looking; and the time frame has been compressed. Nevertheless, the key facts, and most of the grisly details are true, and anyone who might have been witness to these events in the 1990s couldn’t have helped but to think, “This is straight out of a Michael Bay movie.”
The events in Pain & Gain speak for themselves; it’s where Michael Bay attempts to transform them into something entertaining where the movie falters. The story centers on three body-builders played by Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, and Dwayne Johnson, who conspire together to kidnap a wealthy Colombian client at Sun Gym, where the three are employed. Inspired by the musings of a motivational speaker (Ken Jeong) and a desire to achieve the American dream (using a shortcut), the three abduct Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), remove him to an abandoned warehouse, and torture him over the course of a month until they secure the signatures necessary to transfer his assets, his house, and his business over to the ringleader, Daniel Lugo. The owner of Sun Gym, John Mese (Rob Corddry) is also implicated when he acts as a notary public to execute the transfer documents.
The scheme itself would’ve worked if not for the fact that they seriously bungled the murder of Kershaw: Despite plying Kershaw with drugs and alcohol, crashing his car with him in it, setting it ablaze, and running him over twice (and remember, all of this actually happened), Kershaw managed to survive. Given his intoxicated state and the extent of his injuries, the authorities were not inclined to believe his account of torture and attempted murder, so it’s not until Kershaw brings a private investigator Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) into the picture that the noose begins to close around the necks of the bodybuilder, who seek to perpetrate a similar crime on a porn king and his wife.
It’s all far-fetched as hell (especially, once the murders are committed), which makes the real-life events all the more compelling. But unlike reality, we’re put in a position — to some extent — of rooting for the numbskulls behind the crimes. It’s hard not to when one of them, a reborn Christian with a love for cocaine, is being played by the ever-charming Dwayne Johnson. Mackie is also good as a co-conspirator with steroid-atrophied balls and a fondness for overweight ladies (Rebel Wilson). Wahlberg, meanwhile, is not that far removed from his wide-eyed Boogie Nights character, only with bigger muscles. He has a similar naiveté combined with the misguided ambition of someone trying to box above his weight.
There are a lot fo choices that Bay makes to the benefit of box-office and the detriment of the story, but the bar has been set so low for the director that it’s hard not to be a little impressed with his ability to hold a camera still for more than 6 seconds at a time and allow his actors to convey the story. There’s an undeniable Michael Bay schmear all over Pain & Gain — strippers, muscles, fast cars — but it’s the rare instance where that actually works to the benefit of the story.
That’s not to say that Pain & Gain is a great movie, but it is a remarkable entry point into these lurid, fantastical, outrageous events, and at times, it can be outright entertaining. In fact, I’ve seen several people suggest that Pain & Gain is Michael Bay’s best film since Bad Boys II, and while that’s not particularly high praise, like the events depicted in the film, it is also true.