As I’ve discussed Max Payne with folks, I’ve realized that I’m defining it differently than many; I’ve thought of it as a cop movie, not a videogame movie. At heart that’s exactly what it is. The videogame origins are almost wholly immaterial, even when director John Moore throws in shots like Mark Wahlberg’s slow-motion dive through a doorway, done with guns blazing, which calls back to the 2001 PC game that originated the story of cop Max Payne and his crusade against a shady drug empire.
So following through on that train of thought, Max Payne is an execrably bad cop movie, not a horrific videogame movie. That the story originates in a game that fused graphic novel storytelling with the slow-mo action of The Matrix is, again, immaterial. Tales from Homer or Shakerspeare, told with Max Payne‘s lack of feel and finesse, would be just as bad.
Politely shunted down to a subterranean desk job in the cold case office after the unsolved murder of his wife and child, former detective Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg) gets new info that, in his mind, brings his family’s murder back to life. The case turns out to be tied to a drug called Valkyr, which could be related to the Aesir Corporation, Payne’s wife’s employer. Payne’s former partner Alex (Donal Logue) is bumped off while trying to deliver new information, leaving Aesir security head BB Hensley (Beau Bridges, the film’s only bright light) to help Payne figure out the mess.
Somehow, Beau Thorne’s script tells this story with even less persuasive power and coherence than managed in the game. This is, for one, a far simpler version of the story. Mafia subplots are gone, characters have been drastically scaled back, and Payne’s own backstory has been changed. The game was significantly less contrived; each beat of the plot didn’t relate back to every other beat like a host of miniature Ourobouroses. (Ourobourosi?)
Even working with a narrative line stripped bare of all distractions, the story feels lurching and disconnected. The first half-hour goes nowhere very slowly, as Moore tries to build the world and earn our sympathy for Payne. It never pays off. Wahlberg and Moore never make the detective into anything more than a mopey dope skulking around a city that has somehow caught the same gloom that affects the characters.
When Moore finally starts to kick it into gear, with the eventual revelation that Valkyr was the key ingredient in a sort of failed Super-Soldier program (Marvel’s Captain America movie: mooted) the proceedings go hilariously off the rails. Cops are more two-dimensional than a line drawing; gunfights erupt in office buildings for no reason. (Actually, for one reason: those scenes are where the game origins do assert themselves.)
So what works? Let’s be generous and go with ‘nothing’. The best thing the film has going is an over-stylized post-Sin City aesthetic that worships snow, shadows and the easy allure of After Effects filters. As seen in the trailers, the look works in many individual instances, but ultimately turns into a lazy means by which the film can crank up the pathos. And when Wahlberg pulls himself out of a freezing river in front of a city backdrop featuring the same building obviously cloned four or five times to fill out the skyline, any spell is instantly broken.
The supporting cast is almost universally unable to affect the movie’s quality, because they’re barely in the movie. Ludacris has a couple of scenes as an Internal Affairs agent who hounds Payne, and Valkyr-pumped bad guy Amaury Nolasco has a few choice moments, most of which are spent angrily brooding on rooftops. Unexpectedly, the cast member who comes close to acquitting himself is Chris O’Donnell, as an Aesir exec. Who knew?
Even Mila Kunis, horribly miscast as good/bad girl Mona Sax, feels as if she has only a few minutes of screen time. Mona’s sister Natasha (Olga Kurylenko) runs with a Valkyr-fueled gang before she’s murdered in an alley. Mona makes Payne for the killing before realizing he’s the star of the movie, and therefore worth joining up with. But Kurylenko makes a much bigger impression. I’m sure Kunis is onscreen more than my memory allows, but she’s utterly forgettable.
The best we can hope for in a disaster like Max Payne is a memorable finale, but (like the similarly terrible Ultraviolet) that never comes to pass. Although the film is littered with Norse allusions, not to mention many outright hallucinations of Valkyries, nothing ever comes of the mythology save the flashing red skies and fiery rain hallucinated by Payne when he finally downs a dose of Valkyr before tackling the bad guy. I started to type that the mix is ‘all sound and fury…’ but I can’t even bear to complete that in reference to a film like this. And you know how it ends, anyway.