If you love America, go see Pain & Gain

Review of Pain and Gain, Directed by Michael Bay

“Don’t be a don’t-er, do be a doer.” Such is the motto of body-builders/gym-rats Danny Lugo, Paul Doyle, and Adrian Doorball (Marky Mark, the Rock, and Anthony Mackie). Okay, if we’re being all technical about it, it’s the motto of Johnny Wu—the hottest self-help guru to come along in the history of ever. But good advice is good advice, and Danny, Paul, and Adrian have decided to be doers instead of don’t-ers by going out and taking their own little slice of the American dream. The trio is sick and tired of just looking like successful Americans—they want their bank accounts to match the physical perfection of their bodies.  And Danny has a plan. (“I’ve watched a lot of movies, Paul. I know what I’m doing.”) They’re going to kidnap a wealthy member of the gym where they work as physical trainers, push him around a little bit until he signs over all of his assets to them, and then let him go. Between their impenetrable ninja disguises and the fact that said wealthy individual is a huge jerk, no one will ever be the wiser.

Unfortunately, Danny, Paul, and Adrian aren’t quite smart enough to realize that their plan is stupid. Like, really stupid. But as we all know, God protects fools, little children, and the United States of America, so they manage to pull it off. After multiple failed (and hilarious) attempts to kidnap the wealthy jerk, they finally stumble into success. And when no one will believe the wealthy jerk’s claims to have been kidnapped and tortured by body-building ninjas, they seem to have gotten away with the perfect crime. The real kicker to all of this? This movie is based on a true story.

There are any number of reasons you should go see this movie. First, the acting is incredible. Walberg and the Rock absolutely nail their roles. Walberg completely sells the character of a “slightly stupid go-getter with envy issues,” while the Rock is completely believable as the cheerful follower who loves Jesus and cocaine (not always in that order).

Second, the movie is hilarious. While the real-life story is no laughing matter, the filmmakers clearly knew what they were working with. This is the kind of plot that, if it weren’t based on a real story, could never be made into a movie—audiences simply wouldn’t buy it. Ironically, this gives them the freedom to cut loose and have a lot of fun with the plot and characters.

If being a well-made movie isn’t enough of a reason to go see it (it should be), Pain & Gain also has fascinating themes and cultural commentary that really do make it worth the price of admission. For example, its portrayal of the pervasiveness of envy in American life is cutting and accurate. (And a disclaimer: this movie has all the sorts of things you’d expect in an R-rated movie.)

Danny Lugo is dominated by the desire to have what others have. Not, of course, that he ever phrases it that way—he wants only what he deserves. How do we know he deserves it? Two reasons:

  1. He’s worked hard. Granted, he’s worked hard at developing his body, not his mind or his bank account. But he’s worked hard nonetheless. Surely someone who works as hard as Danny Lugo deserves a bigger piece of the American pie than he’s already got?
  2. Look at him! Can so perfect a physical specimen as Danny Lugo really deserve anything less than the most opulent lifestyle Florida has to offer?

And since Danny is a doer, rather than simply wallow in his envy as so many of us ‘don’t-ers’ are content to do, he’s going to go out and take what is rightfully his. At no point does he stop and think to himself, “Maybe I don’t deserve what belongs to others. Maybe my own desires are wrong.”

In this sense, Danny Lugo is the American dream in its worst incarnation. He is every self-help book ever written, every “you deserve success” motivational seminar, and every television ad for, well, anything, all carried to their logical end. He knows that he is better and more deserving of success than the wealthy jerk, and he will stop at nothing to pull the jerk from his gold-plated mansion and see “Danny Lugo” written on the mailbox.

To make it even worse, I don’t think we as Christians are immune to either of these sins. We see things we want and go after them, often without pausing to reflect on whether 1) the things we desire are sinful and 2) the desires themselves are sinful. We easily forget that as Christians we ought to be content with what we have in this world, because God has already given us everything in Christ. This is not to say we can’t work hard at our job or try to make a decent living. It is, however, to say that we are never to pursue wealth out of envy or greed, and we are certainly never to find our identity by hating others for the good things they have earned. Pain & Gain is provides a picture that works as a reminder of all the motivations and goals which we very much should not have, because they have been paid for on the cross.

And also, it’s a fantastically entertaining movie. So there’s that too.

Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Politics at Southwest Baptist University, where he is a don’t-er but hopes someday to be  a doer—unless it looks like too much work.


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