By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Pain & Gain is based on true crimes committed in South Florida in 1994 and '95 and colorfully chronicled by Miami New Times reporter Pete Collins. The details are horrifying — kidnapping, torture, murder, dismemberment — yet Michael Bay's movie strives to make them hilarious.
Family members of victims and a key survivor of violence at the hands of the Sun Gym Gang — bodybuilders played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie — are crying foul.
In a recent telephone interview with the Times, Wahlberg and Johnson answered back.
"Hopefully after they see the movie they'll understand what we were trying to do, and know we're in no way trying to upset anybody," said Wahlberg, who plays the gang's ringleader, Daniel Lugo.
Johnson plays Paul Doyle, a composite of several gang members. "Regardless of whether there's dark comedy and levity in this movie, or if it's complete, horrific dark drama, it's hard and we're empathetic," he said. Johnson lived in Miami during the crimes and ensuing trials.
"Keep in mind, too, that at the end of the day the individuals who committed these crimes paid for what they did, and they're paying now," Johnson said. "They got what they deserved."
Lugo and Adrian Doorbal (played by Mackie) got death sentences. The chief inspiration for Johnson's role served time and is now free. Their victims get something besides justice in Bay's movie.
Marc Schiller was the gang's first target, a businessman renamed "Victor Kershaw" and played by Tony Shalhoub in Pain & Gain. Schiller doesn't appreciate being depicted as a low-life scoundrel who deserved being kidnapped, brutalized for a month and left to die in a set-up, fiery car crash.
"To me, the story was about my survival," he told the New Times. "I don't understand why they want to make me look like a bad guy."
Frank Griga and his girlfriend Krisztina Furton (both renamed for the movie) can't complain for themselves. Griga was beaten to death and Furton was killed with an overdose of horse tranquilizers after another Sun Gym Gang plot went wrong. The movie makes Griga's death appear accidental and Furton's comical.
Griga's sister Zsuzsanna Griga told the New Times: "To show these killers as a couple of funny, nice guys who made a couple of blunders is indecent."
Casting is a key element here. Audiences instantly have an affinity with Wahlberg and Johnson, making it easier for viewers to side with their characters, who in reality play brutal killers.
"Well, yeah, in the beginning these characters come across as likable," Wahlberg said. "You're supposed to root for them because they're trying to gain wealth, but then it gets out of control. You're not supposed to keep rooting for them. But you are supposed to be curious about . . . how it's going to turn out now that it spiraled so far out of control."
Balancing true horrors and humor can be done, as Joel and Ethan Coen's classic Fargo proved. But that movie is ultimately a drama, unlike Pain & Gain, which adds easy-laugh touches like sex toys, homophobic jokes and dwarf tossing that weren't part of reality.
"Well, did they take some creative liberties in Lincoln?" Wahlberg asked.
Yes, but Lincoln wasn't cooking people's body parts on a barbecue grill, another of the movie's comical substitutions for the brutal truth.
Johnson said those touches are meant "to inject a little bit of levity, to have that latitude and leeway. I think in entertainment, in this type of platform, we're allowed that."
So, can you blame anyone for laughing at Pain & Gain yet feeling guilty about it?
"No, not at all, if that's how the movie makes you feel," Wahlberg said. "But we made the movie . . . for selfish reasons, to play characters that are so outrageous that you really get to go crazy with your performance and push the envelope a lot.
"And the moral of the story is: If you want the American dream you gotta work hard for it."
Or perhaps violently die trying.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow him on Twitter at @StevePersall.