As a video game, Max Payne was fairly groundbreaking for its time, offering a cool, but gritty crime noir about a New York City cop driven to the edge by the murder of his family. It played like a graphic novel heavily influenced by action movie clichés, particularly John Woo films and The Matrix with its nifty ability to slow down time, leaping with guns blazing while dodging the enemy's bullets. Yet as stylish and fun as the storytelling and game-play were, with a tongue-in-cheek name like Max Payne, the game was clearly an homage to action classics rather than a serious story.
As a movie, the game is gone, and with it, surprisingly, most of the action. What does that leave? A clichéd cop action movie based on a game about cop action movie clichés. And with virtually no action for the first hour of the film, it's a tediously paced action film at that.
In a world where visuals rule and moviemaking budgets are tight, director John Moore (responsible for the slightly less atrocious Behind Enemy Lines and pointless remakes of The Omen and Flight of the Phoenix) and the filmmakers apparently felt that the movie could get by on the "strength" of its dramatic storytelling. They were wrong … dead wrong. (Cue dramatic music.)
Payne is played by Mark Wahlberg, whose career has taken a serious nosedive between this and M. Night Shymalan's recent bomb, The Happening. But aside from accepting the role in the first place, I can't fault him or any of the other actors—well, except perhaps the laughably awful performance from Beau Bridges. And considering that "Marky Mark," Ludacris, and Nelly Furtado are all in this cast, I wonder if Max Payne might have worked better as a musical. It ultimately doesn't matter whether you cast an Oscar-nominated actor, a respected veteran, or an inexperienced pop star—there's simply nothing to work with when the movie plays like a collection of loosely related scenes strung together.
As the story goes, Payne's wife and baby were murdered by thugs three years earlier. Our hero arrived on the scene just minutes after and took out two of the culprits—the third got away and was never apprehended. A hollow shell of his former self ("I don't believe in heaven. I believe in pain."), the homicide detective transfers to filing cold cases, and while it would seem he did so to escape the world, he's actually tracking down leads in his quest for vengeance.
While pressing a snitch at a party, Payne meets Natasha (Olga Kurylenko, the Bond babe in the upcoming Quantum of Solace), a sleazy drug addict who may have information that Payne needs. When she's brutally killed after their exchange, Payne is linked to the murder as one of the last to see her alive. This leads Natasha's inexplicably grouchy sister Mona Sax (Mila Kunis of That '70s Show and Family Guy) on her own vendetta, and before long, the assassin and cop are teaming up to unravel a conspiracy related to the murder of Payne's family.
I use the word "conspiracy" in the truest sense because it's so laughable. Everything revolves around Payne in this movie, from the corporate CEO who expresses her condolences three years after the death of his wife (a former employee) to the entire homicide department that loses composure when Payne simply walks in the room—even random thugs on a deserted street seem to whisper his name with contempt. If Payne were even half the super-cop he's made out to be, he'd have uncovered the conspiracy years ago since everyone in his life is somehow tied to it.
This is the sort of film that introduces people without introductions, only telling us the bare minimum while sidestepping character development. A mystery man watches menacingly from the shadows and rooftops before and after every murder, just to make the point that he's the bad guy, and to give him something to do on screen. A Haitian gang leader cryptically warns Mona about Payne ("Max Payne has been hunting, looking for something that God wants to stay hidden … Don't be near him when judgment day comes."). What's his point? Heck, I can't even remember why Mona needed to talk to Mr. Haitian in the first place, the film is typically that pointless and inconsequential. You know you're in for it when Payne and Mona question a tattoo artist, and he answers with a lengthy dissertation on Valkyries and Norse mythology.
Ah, right, the Valkyries. People have been wondering what's with all the supernatural stuff shown in the ads. No, the movie isn't concerned with spiritual battles or anything like that—neither was the game. Addicts in the film are hooked on an experimental drug called Valkyr, and to add visual interest to the film, they suffer hallucinations of demonic angels when on the verge of death. This includes Payne, who near the film's climax willingly takes Valkyr to "power-up" and go after the bad guys—kinda like Popeye eating his spinach—and thus thinks he's being pursued by these so-called Valkyries. Cool to look at, I suppose, but purposeful? No way.
Can someone actually name a successful film adaptation of a video game? Here are some common problems that Hollywood never seems to learn from:
- Video games only need a clever premise and strong game-play to succeed. A movie needs to build a cohesive script from that premise.
- The lead character in a game doesn't need a personality to root for since you're playing the role. However, the audience does need to care about the lead in a film since he's external.
- Video games are paced well because they offer constant action. They don't save it all for the end of the movie, and at the very least, the key action is made interesting. (Even the few slow-motion parts that were the game's signature drag in this movie.)
- In a game, you don't question when characters inexplicably turn up out of the blue to support you. However, it stretches credulity in movies after two or three instances.
- Going after the bad guy in a game is challenging and exciting, because it takes a lot of time and skill. Because a movie is more "realistic," a single bullet can end it. That's precisely how underwhelming this film's finale is.
Yeah, I know, this movie is begging to be pummeled with puns—"Payne-ful to the Max," "Misses the Mark" and "Hits the Wahl-berg." But that would be more than generous to a film that puts even less thought into its writing. Max Payne is simply terrible, an insult to the gamers and action fans that would support it, and as empty and hollow as its central character. Frankly, it doesn't even deserve notoriety as one of the year's worst; it deserves to be forgotten.Discussion starters
- In Max Payne, we learn of the tragedy that makes him into such a hollow and unfeeling man bent on vengeance. What drives him? Is it an unusual response under the circumstances? Does Payne find hope for himself or in humanity by the film's end, or is he beyond hope?
- Think about people you know who have lost as much as Max Payne has. With no family or friends to turn to, where do we begin to help them heal? Or do they simply need time to grieve?
- Explain what Payne means when he says, "I don't believe in heaven. I believe in pain. I believe in fear. I believe in death." Then explain what he means later when he says, "I don't believe in heaven, but I do believe in angels."
- What does gangster Lincoln DeNeuf (the Haitian gangster) mean by, "Max Payne has been hunting, looking for something that God wants to stay hidden … Don't be near him when judgment day comes." Was he being spiritual, or metaphorical about the state of Payne's soul?
- Was Max justified in taking Valkyr in the film? Was he just doing what he needed to survive and gain an edge on the enemy? Or is the film pro-enhancement drugs?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Max Payne is rated PG-13 for violence including intense shooting sequences, drug content, some sexuality and brief strong language. Though violent in subject, due to the shootings and beatings, it's a surprisingly bloodless film for the most part. Similarly, a topless woman in skimpy lingerie tries to seduce Max Payne by revealing as much skin as possible without going fully nude. Characters are shown taking drugs by drinking vials—including Payne himself, who sends a mixed message by using it as Popeye might use spinach. And there's plenty of profanity too, including an f-bomb and misuse of Jesus' name. Max Payne is as close to R as a PG-13 movie can be.
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