Sitting through Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, I was, in all honesty, utterly stupefied. I cannot recall the last time filmmakers exhibited a more profound lack of respect and sensitivity in their depiction of actual crimes, namely the kidnapping, torturing, and murdering of innocent people at the hands of Miami-based bodybuilders in the mid 1990s. The ringleader was Daniel Lugo, who landed a job at a Miami gym and turned it into a bodybuilding mecca. This came after he served a prison sentence for swindling people looking secure loans out of their cash in more than one state; rather than turn a new leaf, as he promised he would, he instead roped several other bodybuilders into poorly-planned schemes to extort money out of people in the most brutal ways they could manage.
In November of 1994, Lugo targeted his first victim, Marc Schiller, an Argentine-born New Yorker who eventually set up a successful CPA practice in Miami while trying his hand at a franchise deli and a nutritional supplement company. He was finally captured after several failed attempts and was taken to a warehouse where, over the course of several weeks, Lugo and his men worked in shifts and subjected Schiller to pistol whippings, taserings, sight deprivation, and beatings before forcing him to sign all his assets away, from real estate to cars to jewelry. In Lugo’s mind, it wasn’t about taking everything for himself so much as not letting Schiller have what he earned. The bodybuilders attempted to kill Schiller in December by getting him drunk, putting him behind the wheel of his car, ramming him into a concrete pillar, setting the car on fire, and running him over. Miraculously, Schiller survived all this and escaped. Ironically, he would in later years be arrested for Medicare fraud.
After acquiring the necessary documents and moving into Schiller’s upscale home in early 1995, even though Schiller was still alive and seeking the help of private investigator Ed Du Bois, Lugo and his gang targeted the Hungarian-born Frank Griga, who became wealthy through a phone-sex business, and his girlfriend Krisztina Furton. They weren’t as fortunate as Schiller; Griga was beaten to death with a blunt object after he and Lugo got into an argument, and Furton, initially kept unconscious with a series of horse tranquilizer injections, eventually succumbed to an overdose. Their bodies were smuggled to the same warehouse where Schiller was tortured, and they were dismembered with a chainsaw and a hatchet before being stuffed into oil drums. Identifying parts – teeth, faces, fingerprints – were all destroyed savagely, some with tools, others on a barbecue.
All this, and a great deal more, was reported by journalist Pete Collins in a series of articles published by the Miami News Times between 1999 and 2000. It’s from these articles that Bay and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely crafted the story of Pain & Gain, which fictionalizes several elements but also keeps many of them the same, including much of what I described in the previous paragraph. In a spectacularly wrong move, they turn this innately dark, disturbing case into a goofy comedy rife with juvenile vulgarities, witty one-liners, obvious character quirks, and physical gags that are absurd, scatological, altogether unrelated to the plot, or some combination of the three. Forcing this material to be funny is a monumental offense, not merely to the audience but also to the victims and the families and friends of those victims. Everyone involved with the film’s production ought to be ashamed of themselves.
Lugo is portrayed by Mark Wahlberg as an arrogant, testosterone-pumped tough guy who truly has no idea what he’s doing, although he thinks he does simply because he attended a conference hosted by a phony self-help guru (Ken Jeong) and was inspired to be even more of a “doer.” In reality, Lugo had many partners in crime; in the film, he’s given only two partners, one named after his real-life inspiration, one given a fictional name, both a conglomeration of several people. One is Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), an idiot who’s tired of working for minimum wage at a taco restaurant. The other is fellow ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), an overplayed Born Again Christian stereotype who alternates between a sensitive pacifist and a cocaine-addicted monster. Schiller is reworked as Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a mean, obnoxious, corrupt, wholly unsympathetic man whose torture scenes are intended to come off as humorous.
The only halfway likeable character is Du Bois, portrayed in the film by Ed Harris. The deeper he looks into Kershaw’s case, the more he realizes that he’s not only telling the truth about what happened to him, but also that the police weren’t on their A-game when getting a statement from Kershaw. And it’s true – they weren’t. Nevertheless, Lugo and his men were eventually caught, tried, and convicted. While Jorge Delgado, one of the men on which Doyle is based, would spend fifteen years in prison, Lugo and Doorbal would both be sentenced to death and currently remain on death row. That their grisly, heinous crimes were made light of in a comedy film is nothing short of reprehensible. Pain & Gain is a new low for Michael Bay, whose Transformers films may have been God-awful but at least weren’t morally bankrupt.
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