MIAMI -- There are no gigantic robots or aliens in Michael Bay's latest movie, but there are the familiar squealing tires and sweaty, muscled men doing manly things in slow motion.
And some of the things those characters do are as unbelievable and over-the-top as anything you'll find in the director's Transformers franchise.
Pain & Gain might actually even be a little harder to swallow than sentient robots turning themselves into muscle cars and helicopters given that the kidnapping, torture and murder in the movie -- which is billed as an (R-rated) action-comedy -- actually happened in real life.
It's such an intriguing hook, in fact, that the film, which opens April 26, mentions it twice: right after the opening credits -- "Unfortunately, this is a true story" -- and then, near the end, when the plotline has totally veered off into absurdity and we're reminded that "This is still a true story."
As a comedy, Pain & Gain is as black as they come. Bay has described it as "a cross between Fargo and Pulp Fiction" and apparently also dubbed it "my little movie" because the US$26-million price tag is peanuts compared with his other productions. (Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon had a budget of US$195 million.)
The truth-is-stranger-than-fiction storyline follows a band of bumbling, juiced-up bodybuilders (Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Anthony Mackie) who, in pursuit of the American Dream in 1990s Miami, get caught up in an extortion scheme that goes nightmarishly wrong.
Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, the fitness-obsessed mastermind behind the "Sun Gym gang." Dissatisfied with his dead-end career as a personal trainer, and inspired by a motivational speaker (Ken Jeong) to become a "doer," he concocts a plan to kidnap a wealthy Miami businessman named Nick Kershaw, played by Tony Shalhoub, and force him to sign over his bank accounts and the deed to his house.
Lugo enlists the help of fellow gym rat Adrian Doorbal (Mackie) and Christian-rock-loving ex-con Paul Doyle (Johnson). Kershaw proves to be a tough nut to crack, so the gang tortures him for a month in a warehouse filled with sex toys.
Lugo's plan goes awry and the crew ends up doing some horrible things, for which he and Doorbal are currently awaiting execution on Florida's death row. (Shalhoub's character miraculously survives some gruesome attempts to do him in, but two of the gang's other targets aren't so lucky.)
Co-written by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus (Captain America, Thor), the script is adapted from a series of Miami New Times articles about the hapless but sadistic musclemen's crimes in late 1994 and early 1995.
Wahlberg admits he couldn't pass up the opportunity to portray another "outrageous character who lives in a very interesting and different kind of world." This time, though, it was a real-life and more diabolical doofus than porn star Dirk Diggler, his breakout role in 1997's Boogie Nights.
"You get the script and you start reading and you're like 'That's impossible, there's no way this is a true story,'" the 41-year-old Oscar nominee says during a press conference in Miami. "Then lo and behold, you start reading the articles and doing your research and you find out this actually happened.
"And then you find out they had to take some stuff out of the script because it was too unbelievable and too far-fetched."
Unlike past roles where he's played a character based on a real person -- Micky Ward, inspiration for 2010's The Fighter, was on set with him every day -- Wahlberg said he had relatively little information about Daniel Lugo and so was able to bring his own colours and layers to the part.
"I would have been open to talking with him, but they didn't recommend it so I didn't want to push it," said the actor, who relied on the newspaper clippings to help bring the charming con man to life.
The former rapper known as Marky Mark was able to draw some inspiration from his own life. The youngest of nine children, he grew up in working-class Boston and was a delinquent 16-year-old when he ended up in jail for his role in a brutal assault. He served 45 days of a two-year sentence. Vowing to turn his life around, he took up bodybuilding and got into music.
"I had a criminal mentality. I have a checkered past and I used that to identify with the character," says Wahlberg, who added about 40 pounds of muscle to his five-foot-seven frame for the role.
"He was an interesting guy. He still believed until the end that he was going to get away with it, that he was right. Those are the kind of characters that I enjoy playing."
As for how to reconcile the comedy of errors -- the muscle thugs botched the kidnapping half a dozen times, once dressed as ninjas -- with the tragedy of two murder victims, whose bodies were dismembered and dumped in the Everglades, Bay says he wants the audience to be conflicted.
"I wanted to show a lot of grey areas," says the director, whose last low-budget flick was Bad Boys, filmed in Miami in 1994.
"I read the articles like 12 years ago and they laid out this bizarre story. It was bizarrely funny," he says, "but I also saw that it was about people who are never happy with what they have, so I felt there was some social commentary there. We're really going into the criminals' minds. It's a delusional world they live in, but I think people are fascinated by crime."
The complexity of the Sun Gym case, according to the screenwriters, necessitated some "smooshing" of two or more characters into one. Johnson's character, Paul Doyle, for example, is actually a composite.
"There were so many people who each did one insane criminal act and then disappeared off the scene that it necessitated sort of compressing them into one guy," said Marcus.
The comedy, albeit pitch black, took care of itself.
"When you read what they did, you cannot help feel sick inside, but you can't help laughing because they did it so badly, and so baldly. Really, our job was basically to just present it as straightforwardly as possible and it would come off as insane."
Not everyone is laughing, however.
Real-life survivors of the Sun Gym gang's crimes, and the police authorities who investigated them, are angry with Pain & Gain's comedic take, according to an Associated Press article.
"I don't want the American public to be sympathetic to the killers," the sister of one of the murder victims is quoted as saying.
Also, Miami businessman Marc Schiller, renamed Victor Kershaw in the movie, says the depiction of him as a cigar-chomping playboy surrounded by bikini-clad babes is a far cry from the married homebody he was at the time of his abduction.
Schiller recently released a memoir, also titled Pain & Gain (The Untold True Story), about his ordeal.
Shalhoub, who portrays Kershaw, said it took him "a very long time" to embrace the role.
"I spent a month at Guantanamo Bay," the Monk star jokes about his own fitness regimen to prepare for the torture scenes.
Turning serious, he continues: "You can't really prep for what... this man must have really gone through. It gave me a tremendous amount of respect for this guy."
Shalhoub, who did many of his own stunts, sustained some injuries on the set, including banging his head on a metal table after being slugged by The Rock.
Johnson, meanwhile, says his character was "a very defining role" in a "very defining movie," and acknowledged that playing Doyle was a departure from anything he's done in a 13-year acting career that mostly includes head-busting action heroes.
"I've been waiting for a role like this, with this type of complexity and layers," says the semi-retired professional wrestler. Fresh off of filming G.I. Joe, he arrived on the set sufficiently pumped to play Doyle.
"I never played a character who was this vulnerable, and this easily influenced. And to go from trying to find his salvation in Jesus to sniffing cocaine off a woman's backside, to then grilling body parts, that was a challenge as an actor."
Sex, bugs and body parts
"I got a little sting at the party and now it's swollen up like a balloon."
-- Mark Wahlberg on why he showed up at the press conference with his hand in a bag of ice
"The sex toys were a fascinating day on set because there were some bizarre ones. We bought $75,000 worth of sex toys."
-- Director Michael Bay on the importance of props
"What a relief working with actors with no drama. It was a dream -- just me with the camera, actors acting. One explosion, really no visual effects. It was a low-budget ($26M) movie, but it was good to be constrained in that box."
-- Bay, who's used to blowing things up real good to the tune of $150 million
"What do you say to a dude on death row? 'How's the time going?'"
-- Anthony Mackie on why he didn't want to meet his real-life counterpart, Noel (Adrian in the movie) Doorbal
"For me, it was grilling the body parts. Those were very surreal days."
-- Dwayne Johnson on the most challenging scene to shoot