Friday, April 26, 2013

Pain & Gain: A brawny farce

Pain & Gain (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for strong violence, gore, profanity, nudity, crude sexual content and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.26.13

Truth really is stranger than fiction.

And sometimes quite a bit more deranged.

Having finally kidnapped Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, center) after several bumbling
failures, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg, right) orders the wealthy businessman to start
signing over his assets, while a nervous Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) hopes that
things won't spiral out of control. That turns out to be a vain hope...
In late 1994, a group of bodybuilders based at Miami’s Sun Gym went on a crime, kidnapping, torture and murder spree that was both audacious and utterly beyond belief. Because the gang didn’t collectively share enough brain cells to pass third grade, they were, of course, eventually caught ... thus proving another old adage: We can be grateful that most criminals are so bone-stupid.

The whole gory mess — and I do mean gory — eventually landed in court in early 1998, resulting in the most expensive criminal trial in Dade County history. The case was covered for the Miami New Times by journalist Pete Collins, who also scoured court documents and investigative reports, and interviewed the principal characters, for an extensive three-part series that ran in late December 1999 and early January 2000.

The story is readily available at the New Times website, and makes a jaw-dropping read. Check it out, and I’ll wait for you to get back.

All set? Eyebrows raised to a degree you wouldn’t have thought possible?

Moving on, then...

Director Michael Bay and scripters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have transformed this vicious circus into a hilariously warped dark comedy that signals its intentions with an opening on-screen crawl that reads: “The following story is based on actual events. Unfortunately.”

Yes, several characters and events have been excised for the sake of expediency, and a 10-minute chase toward the end is pure Hollywood nonsense. But the salient details, and the major players, are 100 percent authentic. Unfortunately.

The farcical tone isn’t merely perfect for the material; it’s also a necessary self-defense mechanism, particularly when third-act events stray into the wood-chipper territory of 1996’s Fargo. As these meat-headed lunatics become ever more desperate, this increasingly grim saga remains palatable only because stars Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie are so deliciously, delightfully dumb.

Some viewers will find this tone quite tasteless — making fun of brutal psychopaths, no matter how stupid they are — particularly in the wake of recent events in Boston and Sandy Hook. And several of the actual people victimized by the gang are particularly incensed that their ordeal has been transformed into a jocular burlesque.

Honestly, I’m sympathetic to that view; quite a few of my chuckles were followed by wincing pangs of guilt. But I can’t help admiring the outcome; Bay has delivered an indictment of modern, American-style violence that — to me, at least — makes a much stronger (and far more entertaining) social statement than Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo drives the action. As the story begins, he’s a charismatic trainer at the Sun Gym: a guy with a messianic fervor toward physical perfection, who nonetheless chafes at the unspoken class structure that renders him little more than a buffed servant to the aristocratic element of the gym’s clientele. Alas, for all his earnest self-assurance, Daniel has more ambition than ability; his ego-boosting patter couldn’t impress anybody with an ounce of sense — or education — but it certainly works on the gullible and trusting.

In short, Daniel could talk some people into drinking the Kool-Aid.

As he frets over his inability to grab what he perceives is his share of the American dream, Daniel draws two bodybuilding peers into his orbit: the mousy Adrian Doorbal (Mackie), who clings to his new friend like a lost puppy; and the towering Paul Doyle (Johnson, playing a composite of three actual individuals), fresh out of prison and trying to live up to the ideals of his born-again conversion to Christianity.

With money constantly tight, and newly motivated by a seminar session with self-help guru Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong, a stitch as always), Daniel hits on the perfect scheme: He and his buddies will kidnap arrogant, condescending businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a regular at Sun Gym, and force him to sign over all his assets.

Daniel’s a bit vague on how, precisely, this “force” will be applied, but that’s an insignificant detail. The point is that Kershaw doesn’t deserve his wealth; he’s a spiteful jerk (and, to Shalhoub’s credit, he makes us hate this guy).

The first few kidnapping attempts are classic examples of blunders, mis-communication and hair-brained schemes by Daniel, who fancies himself an expert on military-style stealth techniques, no doubt thanks to what he has seen on television. If you took my advice and read Collins’ newspaper articles, you’ll know that Markus and McFeely don’t exaggerate any of these lame-brained schemes, either. If anything — and in the interests of moving the film along — the script minimizes the number of failed efforts.

Eventually, finally, Daniel and his boys succeed; unfortunately, despite a duct-tape blindfold and half-assed efforts at changing their voices, Victor immediately figures out who they are. That’s problem No. 1. Problem No. 2, ironically, is that Victor moved his family from Colombia in an effort to avoid just this sort of kidnapping-for-profit scenario; he’s hardened, stubborn and not about to cooperate.

Daniel and his friends take turns babysitting Victor, working at him, while still maintaining their alibi-establishing presence at the Sun Gym. Days turn into weeks; little by little, Daniel and his gang wear Victor down. The cooked-up “cover story” will concern Victor’s having liquidated his various financial holdings in order to fund a madcap fling with some stripper.

Once Victor phones his wife and orders her to grab the kids, leave their home and return to her native Colombia, “for their safety,” Daniel moves into the newly vacated mansion ... genuinely expecting that he can easily assume this new lifestyle.

You undoubtedly think I’m revealing too much, but I’m not; this is merely the first act. Because, as private investigator Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) observes, after he takes an interest in these doings, guys like Daniel never quit. Illegally obtained funds eventually run dry, particularly the way it gets spent in Miami’s hedonistic environment; and having enjoyed the taste, low-life losers naturally want more.

Although Wahlberg’s Daniel gets most of the screen time, Johnson steals the film; he’s a natural for this style of exaggerated farce. At the same time, we genuinely sympathize with this poor guy; Paul knows that he’s getting in deeper and deeper, but — God help him — he simply can’t refuse Daniel. Johnson’s desperate, anguished eyes speak volumes; we understand that Paul keeps drawing mental lines that he promises himself not to cross ... but he does, each time, and then the next line is that much more dreadful on the ill-advised behavior scale.

Mackie’s Adrian is similarly hapless and helpless, with an added element of personal torment; steroid abuse has left him impotent, and his whole sense of self is wrapped up in the illusion of physical perfection, which of course means bedding babes. Where Johnson’s Paul engenders sympathy, Mackie makes Adrian a pathetic little misfit who certainly doesn’t deserve the blossoming relationship he develops with Ramona (Rebel Wilson), a lusty nurse he meets while seeking a cure for his, ah, deflated ego.

Wilson is a hoot, her bland, calmly serene attitude wholly at odds with Ramona’s earthy, foul-mouthed dialogue. And lustful proclivities.

Harris’ Du Bois, who enters these proceedings in the third act, is a welcome injection of sanity: the epitome of calm and stability. As he has in so many other films — notably “Apollo 13” — Harris conveys the resourceful intelligence of a methodical planner who can solve anything and fix everything.

Du Bois knows exactly what to expect from the likes of Daniel and his associates, and he certainly has no trouble out-thinking them. Unfortunately, Du Bois can’t interest the Miami police in this case, because Victor’s dealings — and his South American heritage — have just enough whiff of larceny to bias the cops into assuming there’s no point in bothering with an investigation. (Yup. That really happened, as well.)

Bar Paly is suitably skanky as Sorina Luminita, the stripper who first attaches herself to Daniel, and then — once persuaded that he’s a CIA agent (!) — agrees to become Paul’s girl, in order to “keep an eye on him.” Rob Corddry makes a properly dweebish John Mese, the owner of Sun Gym, who also falls under Daniel’s spell. Michael Rispoli is persuasive as a porn king who enters these proceedings in the third act, with Keili Lefkovitz quite comical as his slutty girlfriend ... comical, that is, until things turn dire.

Wahlberg, though, both anchors and carries these increasingly absurd events. His voice-over narration displays the matter-of-fact sincerity that Daniel employs to insist that his behavior is never less than reasonable ... even as it becomes increasingly outlandish. Wahlberg plays Daniel straight and sincere: just a guy out to make the most of himself, even as he eyes a chainsaw in a big-box hardware store.

(We also must consider the irony that this movie is being promoted, in part, by Wahlberg’s own line of fitness supplements, Marked Nutrition, which he credits for having helped him gain “over 40 pounds of muscle” while preparing for this role.)

I must point out, however, that Wahlberg, Mackie and Johnson have “softened” Daniel and his buddies considerably. These are bad, bad guys, and they don’t seem nearly as lovable in Collins’ eyes. But, again, that makes the carnage a bit more palatable.

Steve Jablonsky’s score is as wonderfully amped-up as everything else in this dog-nuts farce, and editors Tom Muldoon and Joel Negron keep the pace lively, although — at a bit north of two hours — the film does wear out its welcome during the final act.

The biggest surprise, however, is that Bay — usually affiliated with shallow, overwrought popcorn epics such as Pearl Harbor and the Transformers franchise — has helmed a project with genuine substance, and done an impressive job with it. While definitely not for the timid or easily offended, Pain & Gain is a stylish dark farce that demonstrates what can happen when somebody’s rancid notion of the American dream goes very, very wrong.

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