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Associated Press
Dwayne Johnson and Mark Wahlberg were attracted to “Pain & Gain” roles.

Thug characters drew actors

Shocking story was challenge to bring to life

The true-crime comedy “Pain & Gain,” opening today, casts Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson in an entirely new light.

The actors usually portray upstanding, even heroic characters who radiate decency like a stove radiates warmth. This time, they play a pair of meathead bodybuilders whose get-rich-quick kidnapping and extortion scheme leaves a trail of dismembered bodies across South Florida.

Director Michael Bay uses the pair’s innate likability (and that of the team’s third stooge, played by Anthony Mackie) to take the edge off their horrendous actions. After watching Johnson’s character charbroil the fingerprints off a platter of severed hands on a Weber grill, “Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?” will never sound the same.

The thug role was a trip down memory lane of sorts for Wahlberg. Before turning his life around as an entertainer, he dropped out of high school, joined a gang, stole cars, dealt drugs and served prison time for a beating that blinded his victim in one eye.

“It was good to be able to take those experiences and turn them around, to make something good out of them,” he said in a dual phone interview with Johnson two weeks ago.

Wahlberg’s character, based on real-life felon Daniel Lugo, is a muscle-bound dimwit chasing a warped vision of the American dream, Miami-style. If the shortest route to an oceanfront mansion is killing the owner and taking it, so be it. Wahlberg thinks his character’s approach, in addition to being criminal, is self-defeating and idiotic. “The way to achieve a good life is to work hard for it and follow the rules.”

Johnson plays Paul Doyle, a hulking but meek ex-con who found Jesus in prison yet can’t resist the lure of criminal life on the outside. “That was the biggest attraction of the movie, the big challenge of showing the vulnerability of this man. It’s a really challenging departure for me to play a character who’s just out of prison and looking for salvation and feeling so easily influenced.”

The late-1990s crime spree by the so-called Sun Gym Gang is still a vivid memory for many there, said Johnson, who also lives in the area. Some of the film’s comedy hinges on slapstick bungling of murders. Turning a notorious real crime into lighthearted entertainment is a risky move, Johnson admitted.

“The story rocked our city. It was a crazy time for us down there then. It’s painful for many people to remember it even to this day. It’s been a passion project of (‘Transformers’ director) Michael Bay’s for years, and he had a very clear idea of how to present it. A kind of ‘Pulp Fiction’-y, fast-moving version that shows what boneheads these criminals actually were. Of course, whenever there is a story based on actual crimes, you have a responsibility to tell it in a way that’s respectful; we were fully aware of that.”

Every day, Johnson said, he said a prayer for the Sun Gym Gang’s victims.

The final shape of a movie is the responsibility of the director, and the co-stars, along with Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Rob Corddry and Ken Jeong, put their faith in Bay’s bigger-louder-faster vision. He had been itching to shoot the film for years, accepting a leaner-than-usual budget. Made for a reported $20 million, “Pain & Gain” is a shoestring production by Bay’s blockbuster standards. He pressed Paramount Studios to let him film it before commencing work on “Transformers 4” (in which Wahlberg will replace departing lead Shia LaBeouf).

It’s important not to lose sight of the movie’s goal to entertain audiences, Wahlberg said. No one should confuse this high-octane candy-colored farce with a somber documentary. Wahlberg said his favorite episode of low-life comedy comes when Lugo, newly ensconced in his victim’s mansion, explains to a pack of neighbor boys how to put a play on the ladies, in explicit terms. It was a throwback to the foulmouthed but uproarious immaturity of his talking-toy comedy “Ted.”

“I had a lot of fun that day talking trash with my little buddies,” he said. “I improvised most of it and I had to be careful about how far I went.”