"My name is Daniel Lugo, and I believe in fitness."
So much so, in fact, that while looking for a fresh start after prison, well-muscled Daniel promises the owner of Miami's Sun Gym that he'll triple membership at the bodybuilding establishment in three months. He does it in three weeks … by offering strippers free memberships.
Soon, Daniel's promoted to Senior Fitness Coordinator. But existential angst gnaws at him. "I spot people for a living," he whines.
After a weekend with a greedy motivational speaker, Daniel's determined to "better" himself. His plan: kidnapping and extorting one of his clients at the gym, Victor Kershaw, a millionaire who brags about his wealth and belittles those who don't have as much.
Daniel soon recruits two bodybuilding accomplices, his friend Adrian Doorbal and the hulking-but-childlike ex-con Paul Doyle, who's recently exchanged his addictions for a relationship with Jesus. (A stripper from Eastern Europe named Sorina Luminita joins the fold as well, though she's never privy to the whole horrific tale that's about to unfold.)
Daniel's original plan was merely to kidnap Victor and, while the man was blindfolded, have him sign over all his wealth. Daniel and his friends do manage to swindle Victor out of most of his assets—including his home and, to Daniel's particular delight, his riding lawn mower.
Things escalate when Victor recognizes his captor's cologne … and Daniel decides his captive needs to be killed. Not once, not twice, but three times the bungling kidnappers botch the murderous job. But the man they thought they'd killed is still very much alive, and before Daniel and his gang realize it, Victor's hired a veteran private detective.
Meanwhile, the stolen money is dissipating rapidly. Paul's portion of the "proceeds" has vanished up his nose via his wickedly resurgent cocaine habit. And Adrian is funneling his share into resurrecting his steroid-impaired male anatomy.
So when Paul suggests another possible kidnapping target, namely porn king Frank Grin (as well as his big-breasted companion), they all decide to go for it.
The results are truly gruesome.
Squinting in just the right way while listening to only about every third word in Pain & Gain might prompt some to say it offers a moralistic critique of one man's massively misguided attempt to pursue the American Dream. We're supposed to view Daniel Lugo's demented plan as a bad thing. Paul has occasional conscience attacks, such as when Daniel tells him to drive their van over Vincent's head. And it's clear that Paul knows what he's doing is wrong, but his susceptibility to Daniel's influence cripples his better judgment. On the witness stand later, Paul confesses everything.
Private detective Ed DuBois' wife, Sissy, says of the whole sordid story, "It's just seems like such a waste of people's lives." After Adrian marries a nurse named Ramona Eldridge, he (rightly) frets that his gang's illegal activities are a threat to his marriage.
Paul talks about having found Jesus in prison. He's means it, even if the film mostly uses his faith as a punching bag for laughs.
An example: As Paul (via voiceover) proclaims, "The son of God knew how to say no. He's my role model," we watch the hulk of a man pummel an opponent in a prison yard. Elsewhere, an aging Catholic priest sexually propositions Paul (touching his arm suggestively) while quoting Matthew 11:28. Paul is repulsed and tosses the man into a fence.
Paul's faith does motivate him to treat Victor kindly. And he eventually asks Victor if he wants to accept Jesus. Victor says yeah … then repudiates his newfound "faith" a few scenes later. For much of the film, Paul wears a shirt emblazoned with "One Way: Jesus." We see him in a prison choir.
A Stryper-loving gun shop owner is played for a gullible fool. The guys abandon their first attempt to kidnap Victor at his house because they look in and see that he's celebrating the Sabbath with other Jews.
A scene in a strip club shows women wearing lingerie and going topless. Women in tiny bikinis are ogled by the camera at the gym's pool. (Male bodybuilders come in for similar treatment.) Sorina rarely wears much, and several scenes picture her in skimpy undergarments. She shows off her bare backside (under her skirt) to the camera and a group of young boys. She spanks herself erotically. She wears a Penthouse T-shirt. She and Daniel have (clothed) sex against a car. She and Paul also have a sexual relationship.
Gags, visuals and verbal jabs revolve around breast implants, breast milk, pregnant women, strippers, multiple sex partners, pubic hair and Brazilian bikini waxes.
There's a semi-joke about volunteering to be a rapist. Crude comments are made about erectile dysfunction and the male anatomy. Indeed, on the witness stand, Ramona goes into a detailed, mocking anatomical description of her ex-husband's genitals. That's after, of course, she and Adrian have ninja-themed sex (complete with explicit movements). Adrian tries to masturbate to porn. A woman at a hair salon is shown reading Playboy.
Speaking of pornography, the place Victor is held is half dry cleaner, half porn-themed warehouse. (It's called The Garden of Eden.) We see dildos, life-size (and very anatomically correct) blow-up dolls, handcuffs, bondage tools and other assorted sex toys. The guys place sexual paraphernalia in Victor's car trunk when trying to stage his death.
One of the killers starts to curiously fondle a dead woman's (clothed) breasts before being rebuked.
The three attempts to kill Victor involve a car "accident," a car fire (which burns him badly) and running over his head with a van tire. He's handcuffed to a bondage chair in the sex warehouse and beaten senseless. He's repeatedly and violently shocked with Tasers. He's flogged with sex toys, his hand is burned with a clothing press, needle-nose pliers are pushed up his nose, and he's hung upside down.
Paul assaults an armored truck attendant with a golf club, after which his toe is shot off by police. (He finds the toe, keeps it, and eventually gives it to a dog.) Daniel is hit by a car and shot in the leg. Daniel and Frank get into a fight that ends with a 45-pound weight falling on Frank's head and crushing it. To keep his girlfriend quiet, Adrian tranquilizes her. A second dose later kills her. To hide the bodies, the bodybuilders buy saws to dismember them. We don't see that awful work being performed, but we do see Paul barbecuing hands, and we watch as Adrian and Daniel drop 55-gallon barrels (with bodies inside) into the Everglades.
Crude or Profane Language
Roughly 130 f-words used in various incarnations. More than 50 s-words. We also hear "c‑‑t," "c‑‑ks‑‑‑er," "pr‑‑ck," "d‑‑k" and "p‑‑‑y." Frequent use of more run-of-the-mill expletives include "a‑‑," "h‑‑" and "b‑‑ch." Slurs and put-downs include "homo," "retard," "whore," "schmuck," "turd" and "scumbag." God's name is taken in vain six or eight times, once or twice paired with "d‑‑n." Jesus name is abused about that many times too.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Falling off the wagon hard, Paul drinks regularly and snorts coke even more regularly—once off of Sorina's bare hip. We see a man inject steroids into his thigh. Twice we see syringes being prepared to inject an unnamed drug into Adrian's penis, once by his doctor, once by Ramona.
Scenes in clubs (some of them strip clubs) feature a lot of alcohol. Paul forces Victor to get drunk before they try to kill him.
Other Negative Elements
Victor urinates on a couch. A man in a hospital visibly soils his gown. Victor ridicules an overweight employee and asks a teen with pimples if he's got herpes. The guys tape feminine hygiene pads over Victor's eyes.
A kidnapping. A thrice-botched murder. More kidnappings. Two successful murders. Dismemberment. Laughter.
Is it really so hard to decipher what's out of place in that list?
Any way you look at it, Pain & Gain is a grisly tale of murder and violent mayhem. It's adapted from New York Times writer Pete Collins' serious investigative journalism series of the same name. But Transformers franchise director Michael Bay has sought to frame this gut-wrenching story as … a comedy.
Based on the reaction of the audience I watched the movie with, he's succeeded. Over and over, people cackled at Victor's travails, giggled at Frank's pain and guffawed at the big-breasted girlfriend.
Tell me again what's funny about torture, murder and barbecuing human remains?
Actor Mark Wahlberg's response to such shock? "It's funny. It's nutty. It's pretty violent. Maybe it's an acquired taste." But Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle counters, "My thoughts are with the victims. To trivialize this horrible tale of torture and death makes a mockery out of their lives and the justice system." And a victim who survived, Marc Schiller, says, "Obviously at the end they tried to kill me—and it wasn't that funny when they tried to kill me. … Making these guys look like nice guys is atrocious."
Collins himself told oceandrive.com, "I guess it's easy to talk about the 'banality of evil' and be glib about it all. But these guys really were evil, psychotic, greedy and full of meanness." Zsuzsanna Griga, the sister of Frank Griga, says, "I think it's ridiculous. It's horrible what happened to them. I don't want the American public to be sympathetic to the killers."
Neither do I. But never mind the death penalty sentence handed down in this case, Pain & Gain does indeed invite us all to empathize with these brutal bodybuilders, to suspend any sense of moral judgment for a couple of hours and just have a good, if dark, laugh. Onscreen, Daniel credits his extortion plot to Hollywood: "I've watched a lot of movies. I know what I'm doing," leaving me to worry that now somebody else will see this film and feel exactly the same way.