Max Payne (2008) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, drug content, some sexuality, and brief strong language
Running time: 100 min. (103 min. unrated version)
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Beau Bridges, Mila Kunis, Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Chris O'Donnell, Donal Logue, Amaury Nolasco, Kate Burton, Olga Kurylenko
Director: John Moore
Screenplay: Beau Thorne (based on the video game)
Review published December 25, 2009
Most films based on video games suck, so it should come as no surprise that Max Payne falls short in the quality department, even given the presence of Wahlberg (The Happening, We Own the Night) and a robust supporting cast. Problems often occur in the translation due to the fact that the video games themselves aren't much more than retreads of movies with interactive components of game play. Even if the film is faithful to the storyline of the game, by taking the interactivity component away, all we're left with is a retread of other movies.
In this film we find our protagonist, New York Detective Max Payne, still haunted by the murder of his wife and child at the hands of an unknown killer who has yet to be brought to justice. Max has been working in Cold Case in the hopes of finding any hot lead to get his revenge, and his trail eventually takes him into the realm of a nasty drug ring in the underbelly of the city. It's soon discovered that there may be a connection with the murder of his family and a powerful experimental drug developed to turn average U.S. soldiers into euphoric, fearless killers.
The gritty third-person shooter dips heavily in the film noir bag for inspiration, presented in stylish comic book panel fashion, though with much more reliance of graphic violence than the detective films of the 1940s. Even if the story is derivative, much of that old detective feel has been excised for a more modern approach in the movie adaptation, leaving it virtually indistinguishable from many other films in current release. There is a horror/fantasy element thrown in that does manage to breathe a touch of intrigue, but the nature of these strange sights and sounds is given away too early in the story to find interesting, resulting in subsequent scenes of harrowing, delusionary winged-monster attacks lacking in genuine fright.
You get what you expect from Wahlberg, who delivers the troubled anithero persona well enough, and the supporting cast is full of competent character actors, with the exception of a miscast Mila Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Over It) as some sort of tough chick who is supposed to be intimidating. She isn't in the slightest, and it's not even very clear what purpose she serves in the film as presented. Not that the actors are to blame, as there isn't much the greatest thespians in the world could do to take a script this pedestrian and direction this sterile and make something compelling to engage us.
Although marketed as an action movie, Max Payne runs surprisingly action-free during most scenes, playing more like a brooding potboiler than the exhilarating, pulse-pounding shoot-em-up you'd gather it would be from the video game. There are spurts of violence here and there, but we're too little invested in Max's plight to care when things begin to erupt. Flashbacks to Payne's happier family life are supposed to give us a feel for his angst, but these scenes are idealized fodder without any attributable personality to its characters. As such, when Max takes down the baddies, we don't really connect with his anger and what it means to finally exact revenge with any emotion.
As a game, perhaps there is enough fun to be had tinkering around with the "bullet time"-style of mechanics that packs an interesting and exhilarating violent punch to scenes where one gets to eviscerate a parade of bad guys before getting to the more challenging boss characters. As a film, there's nothing remotely exciting about seeing Mark Wahlberg re-enact killing nameless bad guys before taking down the main heavies that have little depth and virtually no menace. In video games, the plot services the action, which should come early and often. Max Payne, the movie, adheres to that plot, but doesn't deliver nearly as much action, and when it does, it lacks the one vital component that "Max Payne," the game, distinctly has -- your involvement.
©2009 Vince Leo