Does the new Michael Bay movie Pain & Gain glorify evil? Its protagonist Daniel Lugo (played by Mark Wahlberg) is currently on Death Row in Florida, and the film is mostly seen through his eyes, with his thoughts frequently popping up in narration. Relatives of the victims of his crime spree — an outlandish 1994 kidnapping plot that led to attempted murder and finally murder — understandably don’t find the movie very funny. A Miami Herald story said the families thought the film would make the killers look “sympathetic” or “play down the brutality” of the murders.
Neither is the case. Daniel Lugo was a personal trainer who grew jealous of the business success of a client (played by Tony Shalhoub) who owned a deli by the Miami airport but hinted that true wealth came from shadier dealings. With hardly a second thought, Daniel decides that the American Dream means getting rich no matter who gets in his way, so he enlists a couple of gym-rat pals (Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie) to put on superhero costumes, kidnap the deli owner, and torture him until he signs over his house and property. Along the way the three bodybuilders suffer such misadventures as impotence, getting a toe shot off by police, and the malfunction of a Home Depot chainsaw they are using to try to cut the head and fingertips off a corpse.
The movie treats this nutty plan as an escapade, but with black comic irony. These killers are by no means lovable. And the viciousness of their actions isn’t sugar-coated at all. Despite the kinetic, ultra-modern style of the movie, its underlying stance on good and evil would not have angered the defunct film censor the Hays Office. Rule number one for crime movies was always: Crime must not pay. Rule number two: The criminal may be the most prominent character, but he can’t be the hero.
Both these rules were regularly broken in counterculture hits like Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But whereas the deaths of the bandits in those films fill us with sympathy, nothing of the kind is happening in Pain & Gain.