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.
Daniel and his co-conspirators are hilarious, but they don’t know it. We’re laughing at, not with them. (Though we’re laughing with, not at the movie, which relies heavily on dim-bulb dialogue worthy of Tony Soprano — for instance, Daniel thinks about fleeing to “Paris or France.”) From the opening scenes, when Lugo gets hit by a car and is seen doing crunches while suspended from an outdoor billboard, it’s clear that this guy is a world-class idiot. His outlook is seedy, strange, and totally devoid of a moral foundation.
Miami, according to Bay, is very much the enabler of Daniel’s evil acts: In a way, this city of sunshine, bikini babes, and skeevy guys is a parody of Hollywood. Daniel and everyone around him considers movies to be, rather than escapism, a guide to living (Daniel’s girlfriend, a former Miss Bucharest, says she knows exactly what the American Dream is because “I saw Pretty Woman.”). Real-estate agents and bankers who have long since discarded their ethical qualms about dodgy transactions in a city teeming with drug dealers don’t ask too many questions about Daniel and Co. as they clean out their victim’s bank account and get him to sign over his mansion. Similarly, the Shalhoub character is so vile that no one drops a dime on the other end, either: His own employees hate him and don’t call the cops. If he’d been decent to them and they reported his disappearance, the police probably could have figured out where he was being held in about ten seconds. Bay, in this movie, is the anti-HIllary Clinton: He shows us how it takes a village to allow a criminal underworld to flourish.
But there is a defender of order: Ed Harris as private eye named Ed DuBois, who, though technically retired and initially doubtful about the case, discovers that the strange story actually checks out. He resigns himself to solve the bizarrely tangled crime caper because what the kidnappers are doing is, to him, “un-American.” He’s right: America is not a get-rich quick scheme, it’s not about bad guys succeeding by terrorizing people who are smarter and harder working than they are. DuBois’s steely determination provides the audience with a genuine rooting interest; Daniel and friends are so loathsome and cruel that there is never any question that we want them to get caught and richly punished.
The famous scene of young Vito Corleone gazing at the Statue of Liberty in The Godfather, Part II is a crystallization of that saga’s unnerving view that criminals have their own, corrupt vision of the American Dream, and that a vast free country welcoming to outsiders provides plenty of unfortunate opportunities for taking advantage. But the epic quality of The Godfather, compelling though it may be, is ultimately way off base. If Francis Ford Coppola gave us Shakespearean figures who looked as though they were painted by Rembrandt, Goodfellas (and, later, The Sopranos) reminded us that actual mobsters are semi-literate mooks looking to smash and grab so their braying girlfriends can have mink coats. Pain & Gain won’t be confused with The Godfather. The over-the-top savagery of its irredeemably evil characters reminds us that murderers aren’t heroes.