Thursday, September 19, 2013

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the gym


Admit it: if the Coens made this, you'd masturbate to it.  Okay, since Michael Bay made it, it is probably technically easier to actually masturbate to parts than it would be otherwise.

Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the articles by Pete Collins)
With Mark Wahlberg (Daniel Lugo), Dwayne Johnson (Paul Doyle), Anthony Mackie (Adrian Doorbal), Tony Shaloub (Victor Pepe Kershaw), Bar Paly (Sorina Luminita), Rebel Wilson (Robin Peck), Ed Harris (Ed DuBois), Rob Corddry (John Mese), and Ken Jeong (Johnny Wu)

Spoiler alert: severe

Note: this is more a rumination than a review, and not a little bit of an apologia.  As such, it is lengthy.  TL;DR (and understandably so): Pain & Gain is an explosive work, in the metaphorical rather than literal sense, though there is one explosion.  Its subject: the most brutal of crimes.  Its theme: the ongoing collapse of America.  It is also, and just as importantly, enthralling, and darkly funny.  Every actor in its all-star cast is superb and The Rock proves that he has a talent commensurate to his physique.  All in all, Pain & Gain really does beggar belief—not only because its true crime story is already stranger than fiction, but because the best movie of 2013 so far came from none other than Michael Bay, and that when you get down to it, only Michael Bay could have made it this well.

Stop looking so fucking smug about it.

Score: 10/10

"The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things."—Karl Marx

"You can take my life, but you can't have my shit!"—Victor Kershaw


I. "This is, unfortunately, a true story"

The Pain & Gain Blu-Ray comes with a $5 off coupon for some Mark Wahlberg-affiliated protein powder called "Marked."  It does not, oddly, come with any coupons for hatchets, Das Kapital, or even any homo stuff.

Nothing wrong with protein supplement (got some in my kitchen) and working out is a good thing, but as a piece of marketing it serves as a triumph in the field of missing the point.  Somehow I'm strangely okay with it: as far as people missing the point of this movie goes, it sure wouldn't be the first time.

Pain & Gain is the movie of the story of the legend of the saga of the Sun Gym Gang, and is based on real events to a greater or lesser degree.  Interestingly, the most strikingly strange details of the film are lifted directly from what actually happened, as we will be reminded when things get even weirder than Pain & Gain's already phantasmogorical depiction of Planet America and its inhabitants.

The now (in?)famous shot of Paul Doyle grilling the fingerprints off of human hands.  It really is 100% true—except for the minor detail that this guy does not and never did exist.

The most sweeping change Markus and McFeely's script makes to the real story is the amalgamation of the Gang's more numerous members into only three men, Daniel Lugo, Paul Doyle, and Adrian Doorbal, bodybuilding losers who have had enough of their lot in life as lowly personal trainers at Miami's Sun Gym, and resolve instead to bulk up their fortunes and blast their status, through the time-honored expedient of crime.

Accordingly, details of varying importance are fudged, added, omitted or swapped between the now more compact and narratively cohesive group.  For a few examples: Lugo was carrying on a profitable Medicare scam during the time period of the film, but nothing is made of this here; Doorbal was one of the most bloodthirsty of the group in real life, but is far less sanguine here; "Paul Doyle" is an invention of the screenwriters, but his real-life precursors Carl Weekes and Stevenson Pierre were wimpy dudes as opposed to the veritable Rock-sized fellow in the film; Jorge Delgado, with whom Lugo shared leadership of the gang on a somewhat equal basis, is also absorbed into Doyle, in order to give breathing room to Lugo's cult of personality.

Some of the changes seem designed to make the Gang more sympathetic; some of the additions make them less so; almost all make them more political.  One of the omissions, which must be discussed at the end, engenders more sympathy for one of their victims than a more complete rendition of the tale would.  Overall, in substance the film is more faithful to its real life basis than most movies that take on the challenge of adapting a true story.  Its pretensions to accuracy enhance the film's power, to be sure, but do not form its substance.  The changes Markus and McFeely wrought transmute an extended first half of a Law & Order episode into something more important, like, say, a Breaking Bad episode.

As expected, a brigade of sensitives deployed their outrage over what they supposed to be the exploitation of the victims of the Sun Gym Gang and the glorification of the Gang's members, motives, and murders.  To some degree, I'm willing to accept that knowledge of how it all really went down could bias one against the fictionalized version, especially when they don't seem to have been taken as seriously as, perhaps, one might have liked.  And certain decisions can and will be criticized here.

But it's always been the artist's prerogative to find (or even create) the essence of human events, and to employ whatever artifice they feel is necessary to develop their theme.  The dictate that only slavish devotion to the details of mortals' lives can possibly do them justice amounts to a particularly foolish brand of censorship.

II.  "Now it's the most buff, pumped-up country on the planet"

The crypto-auteur behind Pain & Gain did have here a very big theme to develop: whatever happened to the American Dream?  Like the Comedian said, it came true.  The result is simultaneously a myth and the obliteration of myth.  It's pretty great.

Pain & Gain is a black comedy and eviscerating satire that no one else could have fully replicated and, honestly, few have even attempted.  It may take place in 1995, but it is the amongst the most thoughtful, complex films yet to be made about class in America, and more than any movie in recent memory captures the national mood today.

There have been a fair number of movies to explicitly invoke class warfare since 2011.  Most that address the issue directly have done a lousy job.  In Time and Elysium are lazy wishes on behalf of the 99%, nobly attempting to raise class consciousness but rather more successful in putting one to sleep.  The Purge works slightly harder, in that it takes the general notion that rich people's lives revolve around the desire to kill poor people to its proper logical conclusion, but it's still a bit silly.  As regards higher-falutin fare, Blue Jasmine, for all its quality, was far more concerned with its protagonist's very specific struggle with mental illness than its potent but largely unexamined backdrop of intolerable inequality.

On the other side of the aisle, The Dark Knight Rises is even lazier than its left-wing pop-cinema counterparts: it fails to serve as the potentially interesting fascist power fantasy it initially sets out to be, instead deploying its Occupy imagery as mere stage dressing for some quasi-entertaining superheroic bombast.  Its true subject was the battle against villainy for villainy's sake, complete with a race against a scientifically laughable thermonuclear clock and the discovery that pushups cure a broken spine .  If any real theme can be gleaned from Rises, it's that the Batman can fix anything that is punchable with punches (pushups are a form of punch directed at the floor).  For various reasons this is hard to apply to any actual political issue.

Given enough time to prepare, can Batman create jobs?

And goodness knows I haven't seen Atlas Shrugged: Part One.  I don't think any of those trains even gets robbed.

The oblique approach has proven more entertaining: You're Next and This Is the End are content with satisfying the unwashed masses' desire to see the undeserving rich suffer and die, and are both good at it.  Grand guignol does not, however, require a great deal of nuance.  This movie did.

Sitting down to Pain & Gain without the slightest expectation of any nuance from the man behind the camera is actually somewhat forgiveable.  After all, who but anybody walked into Pain & Gain without a preexisting opinion, probably negative, of the man in question, one Michael Benjamin Bay?  His track record, well, it speaks for itself.  (Though in retrospect, one does wonder if the stark class sentiment of the wealthy murdering their own twin siblings to extend their lives could have attracted Bay to The Island.  We can still probably agree that it's not exactly complicated.)

Yes, Michael, you are going to America.

Watching Pain & Gain without becoming aware of its nuances is less understandable.

Daniel Lugo cites film as both a basis for his expertise in crime, and his inspiration: the "self-made men" of the Godfather trilogy and Scarface are his role models.  If you dismissed this as nothing but a wink serving as an excuse to explore the issues the filmmakers were purportedly actually interested in (gay jokes, placing the camera at knee level), or if, God help you, you were to read this as anything like the more straightforward crime epics it references, you might be rightly repulsed... and I would have no idea what movie you actually watched.

Pain & Gain is such a blatant corrective to the idea of living life by the sword in the manner of a Tony Montana that it cannot possibly be enjoyed unironically as the antihero's journey—not even by the profoundly stupid who think Brian de Palma's movie about a guy who snorts mountains of cocaine imparts any life lessons, other than not to snort mountains of cocaine.

Apropos of nothing, why is Scarface: The Musical, not already a thing that exists that I can watch right now?

Nuance, of course, does not mean subtlety.  All the weird camera angles, slow motion shots, sweat-drenched hunks, splayed-for-display beauties, neon-lit nights, and orange-and-teal days—all the elements that form the basic lexicon of Michael Bay's visual language—create a viscerally hyperreal world and a manic tone that enrapture some, annoy others, but could never be confused with subtle by anybody.

Not pictured: understatement.

Nor should it be subtle.  Asking for subtlety here is like asking Stanley Kubrick to tone it down about nuclear war in Dr. Strangelove: it's a request so obtuse it borders on madness.

Maybe a little subtlety is okay.  What a great shot.

Cool metaphorical shots aside, the nuance of Pain & Gain is in its narrative scaffolding, an odd, external construct to the story that never fully takes sides with anyone.  Multiple narrators (two in the first two minutes) relate the Sun Gym Gang's tale.  Every significant character but John Mese and Robin Peck gets to speak his or her own mind.  Little is hidden from the attentive audience.  Even these characters' self-deceptions are patent.

And this shouldn't work, especially given that their monologues are given to hard-boiled, sometimes clumsy prose, even when they are not filled with grandiloquent declarations of their intentions and motivations.

You can't just tell the audience what you're feeling!  That makes me feel angry!

But it does work: in part, because the narration is well-delivered by highly talented actors; in part, because it is often laughable, in a good way; in part, because it highlights each character's self-aggrandizing nature, pathological optimism, and thoughtless moment-by-moment approach to life; and it works also because it lends to the film a curious dual nature, both subjective and objective.  It would be more difficult to entertain the broader implications of Daniel Lugo's monstrous adventure without the distance generated by the commentary from his accomplices and his enemies, or the batty ideology he relates to us himself.

Lugo's ideology is based on the American Dream; the American Dream finds its highest expression through hard work.  Daniel Lugo is literally made of hard work.

III. "Killing me won't give you job skills, Daniel"

The first shot of Pain & Gain is of Lugo doing some impressively inverted sit ups off the side of a building, while the cops roll up and Steve Jablonsky's gorgeously melancholy score plays; chronologically, this is the end of the Sun Gym Gang's reign of terror, and we may rest assured that they will meet justice.  To get it out of the way: Pain & Gain does not like these guys.  They are the villains.  They are cruel jokes that walk like men.  They were born bad, and they were born in the U.S.A.

The first of the many words of narration in Pain & Gain are "My name is Daniel Lugo, and I believe in fitness."

This is the best single line in a film I've seen this year.  It is bizarre, funny, and contains within it a wealth of character information and, less obviously, brilliant allegory and scathing economic satire.  I understood this movie and its abomination-protagonists within moments and that is no mean feat.  The upshot is that Michael Ilyich Bay may be Hollywood's most prominent, unaccountably wealthy Marxist since Warren Beatty.

Consider the Sun Gym Gang.  They have peaked as personal trainers at a failing fitness center.  Some of them have criminal records.  None of them have significant educational achievement or marketable skills that don't involve lifting various types and amounts of weight.  Marginally employed in the business of improving others, their potential for self-improvement has slipped away.  All they have to offer this economy are their bodies.  Once this may have been good enough—once this may have been much more than good enough—but now, made obsolete by forces beyond their control or conception, even their monuments to physical perfection can barely makes ends meet.  Like so many Americans, their hard work doesn't matter.

Consider too Sorina, the stripper who becomes involved tangentially in the Gang's scheme, who has traveled from the ends of the Earth (or at least the ends of Europe) to end up exchanging her own physical labor for money in the world's oldest manner, its nature scarcely concealed by the intermediary of her "relationship" with Lugo or, when she's passed to Paul Doyle like a used car, the delusion that by banging Doyle she's fulfilling her duties as Lugo's "CIA field operative."  She has aspirations to movie stardom, but possesses no talent, only dreams: this is just the coping mechanism that helps her accept the reality that she is stupid, useless, and she really is worth nothing more, in terms of economic value, than—as she relates in her voiceover, in Romanian slang—her pizda.  But at least a pizda, and her own hard work at maintaining the body surrounding it, has the potential to grant her entree to the good life; Lugo and company don't even have that option.

But one has to wonder, if Daniel Lugo had watched Urban Cowboy that night on TCM instead of The Godfather, could all this bloodshed have been avoided?

Indeed, if access to the corridors of wealth and power is denied to Lugo and company, so, as a result, is access to other, even more desirable corridors.  It is no accident that one of Lugo's first scenes, that sends him down the road of introspection (or what, for Lugo, passes for introspection) and ultimately into a renewed life of crime is the curt dismissal of his romantic overtures to an attractive client.  Later, even while the first kidnapping is underway, Doyle identifies the gang's next target, Frank Griga, because Griga swoops Sorina away, if only temporarily, on a tide of money (he is indeed very rich, but "I didn't know that then; all I knew was that he was a douche").  It may seem somewhat unlikely that a woman may summarily send Marky Mark or The Rock on their way, but financial insecurity is only a little bit more attractive than pungent body odor.  Lugo and Doyle have been economically emasculated.

Or, if you prefer, cockblocked by capitalism.

Love is of course largely absent in the world of Pain & Gain, where human relationships have been reduced to their exchange value.  Only two pairings can we determine meet anything like the criteria for love: private eye Ed DuBois' marriage, which much like DuBois himself is presented as a relic of a bygone age; and the courtship and marriage between Adrian Doorbal and Robin Peck.  Their success is only made possible because he either natively, or because he has adjusted his affinities to the realities of his sexual market power, likes fat women.  She likes muscly black men.  Thus they can fetishize the other, the only context in which human affection seems plausible.

(That the real Lugo was actually married with children, and that Cindy Eldridge, the real-life basis for Robin Peck, was a thin, conventionally attractive woman, is all, of course, really beside the point.)

And, yes, I am a big Houellebecq fan.  Why?

The savagery of their intellectually, materially and sexually impoverished lives has made them savage, too, but the good life surrounds and stripteases them with its infinite decadenceThe urgent value the culture places on monetary attainment, and the conspicuous consumption and mating opportunities it affords, taunts them at every turn.  Lugo and his friends live in a state of permanent humiliation.

Most demonically, this humiliation takes the form of Johnny Wu, self-help guru.  He speaks of how he gained enormous wealth without any specifics; and how, subsequently, he gave up love with the "perfect partner" for his "seven honeys," surely the real American Dream.  He belittles Lugo even as he exploits for his own gain the envy his showmanship generates.  Lugo, formerly imprisoned for grifting senior citizens with transparent investment scams, should be demystified to this magic, but cannot recognize the same sleight of hand when the man asks him to give him a dollar bill and then makes it disappear, before he tells his assistant to "get the bitches on the boat."

"You know that's where you wanna beeee."  (In Internet terms, that's a deep cut.)

Lugo's class rage finally articulates itself when Lugo meets a new client, Victor Pepe Kershaw.  He's a wimp in the gym but cuts an impressive figure in the world that matters.  He's a submarine sandwich magnate, successful investor, living Horatio Alger story, proud tax evader.  He, like rich people everywhere, cannot be satisfied merely with his life of comfort, leisure, and (so he believes) security.  To feel big, he must make others feel small.  He does so to his bullied employees at his Schlotsky's franchise; he does so to his hired immigrant help; he does so to Lugo.  The natural reaction of the brute is to respond in kind.  Lugo: "I don't just want everything you have.  I want you not to have it."

(As an aside, Marc Schiller, Kershaw's real-life basis, was not the risible asshole that Kershaw is, at least not in this manner.  Schiller actually employed and partnered with Sun Gym Gang affiliate Delgado—Sir Not Appearing In This Film—out of sympathy for his economic situation, and entrusted him, innocently if unwisely, with much of the financial and personal information that made him such a tempting target for the real Lugo.  Further, Schiller's Schlotsky's was actually failing.  Kershaw evinces pride in his sub shop's alleged success, over and above all else; possibly he does so in the service of rather less-than-ideal product placement, but I prefer to think it is a satirical swipe at the investing class, who try to legitimize their streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans of passive income by pointing to their real business accomplishments, however minimal they actually are.)

Having internalized the ethos of predatory capitalism and fueled by both resentment and ressentiment of the highest order, Lugo hatches the plan to kidnap Kershaw, torture him until he signs over his assets, and dump him, none the wiser to who ripped him off.  This plan is already flawed in that Lugo, perhaps genuinely, does not from the outset recognize its will require him to kill Kershaw.  He thinks it can just be that easy.  The tales-of-the-weird dimension to Pain & Gain is that it almost was.

Lugo enlists his friends.  They have their own goals and idiosyncracies.  His first recruit is Adrian Doorbal, steroid user, who has gone impotent and needs money for his condition's expensive treatment (as Peter Stormare's urologist laconically relates, in a cameo that nods to Fargo, "It has its price").  Doorbal is dubious of Lugo's scheme, but goes along out of loyalty, optimism, and, he feels, necessity.

Paul Doyle, almost childlike in his outlook, is alone in this world; initially all he wants is nothing more than to belong to a group.  He is recently out of prison, in recovery, and born again.  He wants to do good, but he is an American and an idiot, and can be convinced, with only a little prodding, that God really does want him to be rich.


Doyle, as noted, is a creation out of practically whole cloth.  Some of his actions reflect real events, but Doyle is a fiction, and one of the best characters to appear in theaters in a while.  His religiosity, his addiction, and his combination of basic friendliness with murderous capacity are all constant sources of bleak comedy—"comic relief" being probably not quite the right phrase.

Doyle may be dumb, but none of them are too bright, and the operation becomes a farce immediately.  "Mission abort" becomes a familiar refrain.  But thanks to a can-do attitude and hard work, in a coup de main at Schlotsky's, they finally succeed in snatching their target.  Once they do, Lugo disguises his voice, affecting a stereotypical, racist imitation of a Middle Easterner; he uses this accent to launch into a nativist tirade regarding Kershaw's immigrant status.  If this were not enough, almost at once Kershaw recognizes Lugo anyway, from his stinky, cheap cologne.  This mastermind clearly did not account for all variables.

The location is a warehouse that concerns Doyle because it contains all of the sex toys on Earth.  He is both phobic and curious—but once occupied by an indifferent Lugo, this particular palace of pleasure rapidly assumes the contours of an Inquisition dungeon.  Though the Gang is cruel, Kershaw demonstrates a strength of will and capacity to resist they never expected from such a soft piece of underdeveloped muscle.  "He never worked this hard in the gym," muses a frustrated Lugo.  But Kershaw's inner reserves are not unlimited.  Lugo observes, "I break guys for a living."  By the end of the month, Kershaw's messy signature is appended to countless legal documents.

And when after many misadventures he finally winds up hiding out at DuBois' house under the detective's protection, when Kershaw cries it's not over torture or the strain on his family; he repeats, over again, "I had a boat."

But before that boat can become Lugo's, there's one thing the Sun Gym's ringleader didn't reckon on.

IV. "What is a fucking notary, man?"

In his voiceover, Kershaw notes the irony that he left Colombia in the first place because he was afraid of being kidnapped; the implication, perhaps, is how little separates America from the Third World country of his origin.  John Mese, Lugo's boss at Sun Gym is a notary public (an "officer of the law" who's been given a "sacred trust")—he is overcome with a comically minimalist act of bribery.  And once his sacred stamp's at Lugo's disposal, none of the many bureaucrats whose eyes must pass over all these pages of fraudulent documentation notice anything irregular about vertical signatures crossing through the boilerplate, let alone what might be blood and urine stains.

Perhaps most insidious of all his tormentors is the one who believes himself the kindest: Doyle discovers that Kershaw too is teetotal, "got my chip and everything."  Forging a tenuous personal connection on this basis, he subsequently "converts" the Jewish Kershaw to Christianity, rewarding him with a Taco Supreme.  Following this road to Orlando moment, he describes "Pepe" as his "friend"; Kershaw dubs him "El Dad," demonstrating that for some religion is worth a little amicable oppression, and for others, it is a more fluid thing, and a weakness to be exploited in exchange for favor.

Pictured: "The Beloved of God."

When the time comes to kill him—it became obvious to Lugo the moment his identity was revealed, but for his crew, it's a distressing revelation—Doyle is the one who forces Lugo to chug chocolate liquer, so that when they crash his Beemer with him in it it'll look like death by drunken misadventure.

As is their general M.O., they botch the murder in a scene both comedic and chilling.  Despite five full attempts to kill him by various means, three at the scene of his staged death, and two later, they never quite manage it.  Kershaw lives.  It helps that they are very stupid.

Uncool guys do look at explosions.

Unfortunately, Kershaw's troubles are only beginning.  Hardly less venal than the Sun Gym thugs are the Miami police officers, who nominally represent the best of America, now confronting the brutalized, hospitalized man.  Instead of taking his claims (or at least his injuries) seriously, they happily assume that the Colombian immigrant is a drug dealer, dismiss his tale of "ninja bodybuilders" as a cover for a narcotics-related beating, and, finally, question his sexuality.

Yes.  I'll get to it.

They don't even hang around long enough to catch the Sun Gym Gang's attempt to murder him in the hospital.  Luckily, Kershaw's been in contact with the first private investigator to catch his attention in the Yellow Pages.  Ed DuBois, the Only Sane Man, advised him to get out.  He'll take Kershaw's case; but in the meantime, the decayed, overwhelmed, and compromised state apparatus can muster no interest in the problems of a Jewish-Colombian restauranteur—nor in the prospect of a savage criminal moving into his house.

In the end, the American state, or at least the Floridian state, is so useless to its citizens that the Gang claims two more victims, and they aren't as lucky.  They lost more than their boat.

V. "A lot of homo stuff—a lot"

But in the meantime, Lugo makes his victim's house his home.  He organizes a Neighborhood Watch.  He coaches the neighbor's kids in basketball—and the precepts of Fitness, generally.  Firstly, no pickle-lickin'.

Dancing like this is acceptable.

Ok, I'm to it.  Bay has, and it's his own fault, developed a reputation for profound insensitivity to all matters racial and sexual.  It's not too much of a stretch to imagine that he himself harbors retrograde attitudes that would be more at home in 1917 than 2013.  Now, goes the logic, Pain & Gain gives him carte blanche to go up to 11—more racism, more sexism, and more homophobia—and the permission to hide behind the notion that, "Hey, it's, like, just the characters, man."

In my mind, Michael Bay talks like Wooderson from Dazed & and Confused.

It's not a non-sensical theory, but I don't think the evidence is conclusive or even persuasive.  As I've said, Bay, Markus, and McFeely do not want us to like the Sun Gym Gang, and I think they particularly want us to despise Lugo.  Thus, the Lugo they've created, even while relatable at turns, is despicable.  As he settles into his new groove in Kershaw's mansion, they don't want us to settle in with him. His drill sergeant tactics with the kids, including a toxic dose of homophobia, is a reminder of his inherent, even cartoonish, villainy.

Two details of this scene caught my eye.  When Doyle swings by Lugo's new digs during a coaching session, he happens to have brought along Sorina, the joint trophy of their American success story.

Panty status: unclear.

Lugo makes a deliriously inappropriate motivational speech, teaching the kids that fitness (or Fitness) means the ability to acquire such "fine Russian pussy."  Those more susceptible to Lugo's poison raise their hands eagerly.  The kids with more finely honed critical faculties ask, behind their bemused faces, what the fuck is wrong with this guy?

Sure, Michael Bay didn't direct that kid.  That face in the center of the frame is a total accident.

Secondly, then, Sorina isn't Russian, she's Romanian.  Maybe Bay, Markus, McFeely, Wahlberg, Johnson, and Paly all forgot; four of them only wrote, filmed, and acted in an entire flashback sequence detailing how she came to America from Romania, where she was a runner-up to be Ms. Romania, and wore a big sash that said Ms. Bucharest on it.  Or maybe, just maybe, their goal was to highlight Lugo's proletarian ignorance, vile attitude to sexuality, and cancerous jingoism.

Maybe Michael Bay does hold to such values; or maybe he just thinks they're amusing.  What I believe is the likeliest case is that he thinks that they're amusing to the audiences that pay his bills, so he lazily trots them out when he's disinvested in his work—as, understandably, he has been for absolutely fucking years.  But if Lugo's beliefs reflect Bay's in any way, it's not really in evidence; here, those values are used to intentional and insidious effect.  But hey, if you need to recharge your hatred meter, do check out Transformers 2 instead.

I concede that he thinks women are hot...

...But for an anti-humanist like Bay, we're all objects.

And ultimately, it doesn't matter what's in Bay's heart of hearts.  Even if he is a racist sexist homophobic Commienazi, such a warped lens turned out to be perfect for capturing this intimate tale of monsterism.

VI. "I was one of you"

In the end, it's not really Kershaw's survival that seals Lugo's and the Gang's fates, but their unbridled greed (and, I suppose, their continuing lack of job skills, although they do get marginally better at murder).

Doyle is foiled in an attempted armored car robbery he hoped would restock his exhausted funds (Russian Romanian pussy pizda is expensive, as is the cocaine he's relapsed into).  He comes to Lugo covered in green paint from an explosive dye pack and less one toe from a bullet meant for his center mass, and he begs his friend to help him do another job.  Initially reluctant, Lugo is convinced when Doorbal weighs in on the side of action.  Left unsaid is that Lugo has taken the vast majority of Kershaw's stolen wealth, leaving his partners with scraps.  Lugo reasons, though, that he could always use more.

Thus they prepare for another extortion mission.  The target: Frank Griga.  It goes awry far more rapidly than their go at Kershaw; Griga and his wife die before they can sign anything.

But when Lugo kills Griga, it's not premeditated in the philosophical sense; it's because Griga reacts to his phony business overtures with the same level of mocking derision that the beautiful brunette did toward his come-ons.  Lugo is still insecure; he knows that he's just a petty criminal, and not even a good one; ultimately, despite his forcible entry into the upper middle-class, he remains a loser at this endeavor, just as he's been at every other.

The aftermath of the murder, ironically, does provide the best laughs, largely coming from Doyle.  "Yeah—take a minute," he suggests, as Lugo pumps some iron to try to deal with having just crushed a man's skull (with, of course, a weight).  "Work it."

It all unravels very rapidly now, and now that Griga and his wife are dead the Miami police finally move on the Sun Gym Gang, even as they attempt a "salvage operation" by looting Griga's house and dispose of the bodies in a succession of gory scenes (including the part with the grill).

Each member meets his fate in a different way.  Doyle is resigned and—almost—happy to be removed from the trials and temptations of the world outside prison.  Doorbal freezes in fear.  Lugo, of course, runs.  He runs all the way to the Bahamas, his last refuge and the home, thanks to shitty banking laws, of Kershaw's secret stash.

An aside here: Pain & Gain is a well- but not perfectly-made movie.  The aesthetic is dynamite, but goofs and annoyances crop up from time to time, obnoxious given the level of surface professionalism.  Watch carefully and you'll see scenes, like Doyle and Doorbal's conversation at the bar in the strip club, that are clearly stitched together from two separate takes on two separate cameras—these might have been the best reads, but it's distracting when the head movements don't match.  But that's a little thing, less noticeable to one who hasn't watched the movie three times in a week.

More apparent is that the movie may be about five minutes too long.  The climax is the arrest of Doyle and Doorbal and the attempted arrest of Lugo in Miami; it is, after all, where we began our journey into this strange but familiar dimension.  The moment where Lugo hits that police car's windshield is the moment where the movie, thematically, comes to its crescendo.

Of course, Lugo's brief escape to the Bahamas did really occur.  But in a movie that was happy to invent a nonexistent character, and considering how impossibly fictionalized the Bahamanian arrest winds up being, I wonder if this could have been excised, particularly as it largely serves as an excuse for an action scene.

On the other hand, it's not a bad scene, for being unnecessary.

There's certainly some satisfaction to be had in Victor Kershaw running Daniel Lugo over with a car, for a change.

Further, the helicopter conversation it leads to between Lugo and DuBois is one of the film's highlights.  Landing on a tarmac back in America swarming with hundreds of cops, Lugo asks, "Is this for me?"

In a very strange way, Lugo is proud of himself; and in an even stranger way, his pride is understandable.  He is famous.  He has pushed himself to the limits of his capability.  He has lived, however briefly, some twisted form of the American Dream.

In narration, he admits, however, that he made a mistake.  He says that he started out just wanting to be like everybody else, to have what everybody else had.  But then, something happened, and he wanted more, he wanted to be better, "and that's a recipe for injury."

That's what Pain & Gain is about.  It asks if the quintessential American quality is not hard work, or even greed, but if it is just brutal, simple, cruel envy, and even more importantly the desire to be envied, that drives our nation—rich and poor alike, smart and profoundly stupid alike.

"Can it be neon green?"
"Yes, Michael." 

It's about the first sparks of class consciousness manifesting as blind rage.  It's about the civil war that's happening now and will only get worse as long as Fitness, by any other name, remains America's foundational ethical system.

Oh—and what of Victor Kershaw's real-life counterpart, Marc Schiller?  Well, on the day that the real Lugo and Doorbal were sentenced, he was arrested for Medicare fraud.  It's arguable why this bit of closure was left out, but I think it was to not confuse the message by branding Kershaw as an unambiguous villain in his own right.  I feel this was a mistake, but I understand the desire not to suggest that Lugo was a real working class hero after all.

The ambiguity is what I love about Pain & Gain.  If you wanted, you could view it instead as a right wing caution: evil poors will kill the heroic job creators; they're coming with their muscles and redistributionist ideology and most of them aren't even white!  That'd be a mistake too.  Almost everyone is a villain in Pain & Gain.  Almost everyone is the spiritually ugly result of a spiritually ugly world designed to make people hate each other.  And that world is far too close to ours for comfort.

Again, it's the best movie of the year so far; as a deep yet endlessly entertaining meditation on all we think we believe, it might be the movie of the 21st century.

This country sucks.  Let's hope we really do get another set.

It bears repeating: 10/10

P.S. $5 off coupon aside, the Pain & Gain Blu-Ray suuuuckks, a real travesty for such an important film.  Special features include: scene selection.  Yeah.  Well, buy it anyway, you bourgeois pig.


  1. Hmm... I was positive I already commented on this one. Weird.

    Anyways, why do you use sanguine in this sentence? It doesn't make sense.

    "Doorbal was one of the most bloodthirsty of the group in real life, but is far less sanguine here"

    1. I might've meant "sanguinary."

      In any event, he is less "cheery, optimistic."

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