Max Payne (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Max Payne Poster

"I don't believe in heaven. I believe in pain. I believe in fear. I believe in death." So states Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg), elucidating his nihilistic creed during the film's opening moments. While the movie bearing the title character's name holds true to the darkness of those words throughout, the narrative that unspools may have audience members unfamiliar with the video game source thinking of the The Bard's quote about sound and fury signifying nothing. Visually, this is an interesting movie. A lot of time is spent getting everything to look right, and the color desaturation evokes memories of film noir. Unfortunately, the storyline is only as coherent as it needs to be to get the audience from Point A to Point B.

Max Payne follows the trajectory of an old-school video game adaptation, which is to say that it sacrifices plot and character development in favor of mindless action. This sort of thing can be enjoyable when there's an interactive element to it. Take away the buttons and knobs, however, and it quickly becomes repetitive. That's the problem with too many game-to-movie productions - they are constrained by a desire to remain "true" to the material from which they originate. Max Payne has a solid setup but fails to take it anywhere remotely interesting. We end up with a guy running around shooting things in the dark.

The narrative is basic. Max is an NYPD homicide detective who has been working cold case files since his wife and infant child were murdered. He is obsessed with catching the person responsible for the crime, and that desire has consumed him. While many of his leads result in dead-ends, Max eventually finds a live one. He is joined in his quest for justice by a lady assassin, Mona Sax (Mila Kunis), whose sister may have been killed by the person Max is seeking. Other allies include his father's former partner, BB (Beau Bridges), and an Internal Affairs cop (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) who is technically investigating Max's involvement in several questionable deaths. At the heart of everything lies a government conspiracy and a highly addictive drug that, when taken, can cause superhuman abilities and supernatural hallucinations.

The film's most interesting sequences are those in which we see through the eyes of the drug users. Their world is a grim, trippy place, inhabited by winged demons and other bizarre Ministers of Grace. The film could have done a lot with this imagery, such as implied that this "second world" is real but unseen by normal humans, but it's not that smart. Ultimately, these sequences end up as eye candy - ways to punctuate an overly familiar, stillborn story that wears out its welcome. The character of Mona is equally pointless. There's potential there, as well, but it's left untapped. Mona could have been an intriguing sidekick or adversary, but she isn't in enough of the movie to serve either purpose well. Max Payne would have been better served by deleting this extraneous appendage altogether, but that's not a move that would have made gamers happy. One wonders whether they'll be pleased with her fleeting appearances, including one in which she dons deus ex machina garb.

Mark Wahlberg grins and bears it. Actually, he doesn't grin much but he does bear it. He goes into stone-face mode, which reminds us that he, like most capable actors, can do these "paycheck" roles with the best of them. There's nothing memorable or interesting about his performance; the only positive thing I can say is that it's a step up from his work in The Happening. Mila Kunas is cool and sexy, but she doesn't have enough screen time to be anything more. Ludacris acquits himself better than most of his co-stars, delivering his lines with a gravity to match the grayish cinematography. Beau Bridges is bad in a way that not only assassinates his character, but makes a supposed twist transparent.

The film provides ample opportunity to attack the MPAA's hypocrisy. Max Payne is a bloodbath, yet it manages a PG-13 rating by keeping the explicitness of the killings just a whisker shy of what would be necessary for an R. Never mind that the plot is about an obsessed man trying to slaughter those responsible for his loved ones' deaths, or that the body count makes that of the average slasher movie look tame, or that a subplot involves drug addiction. Despite all of this, the movie is deemed okay for teenagers, yet the bare breasts of a woman have to be turned from the camera for fear of corrupting young minds.

I keep waiting for the first truly great video game movie and, with games becoming increasingly more complex, I approach each such motion picture with cautious optimism. It has to happen at some time, but Max Payne isn't it. Maybe fans of the game will be okay with the cinematic adaptation but for those who aren't new to Max and his world, this isn't an impressive introduction. Clunky action, chaotic plotting, and embarrassing dialogue are not ways to impress newcomers. There's plenty of Payne to be found here - in more ways than one.

Max Payne (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2008-10-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1