Max Payne Review
"Michelle lying on the bed. Bullet holes like rubies on her chest. Our baby's cry cut short, the absence of it heavy in the air. To make any kind of sense of it, I need to go back three years. Back to the night the pain started..." Reading back those words printed in the pamphlet that originally accompanied the release of the videogame Max Payne, you could be forgiven for thinking that even the oft-talked-about infinite number of monkeys could have delivered a script for a Max Payne movie that was a damn sight better than what Sam Lake did for the game. Max Payne tried for hardboiled but ended up dry-boiled, its characters, situations and drama reduced to cliches. And short though it was, it stretched out its thin story with conspiracies, a comic strip and flashbacks to the night that Michelle was murdered. But what the game had going for it was action. Unfortunately, this film, seven years in the making, can't even claim to have that.
Max Payne is a cop working alone in the Cold Case unit in New York. Three years ago, his wife was murdered by drug addicts but in the midst of the shootout, one of them got away. Payne is consumed with the case, searching through every file that lands on his desk in the hope of something that will lead to closing the death of his wife. A fight in the men's room at Roscoe St subway station leads nowhere, while a party at the apartment of his snitch leads only to his meeting Natasha Sax (Olga Kurylenko). Max notices that Natasha has a strange tattoo on her arm, like one half of a wing, and together they leave for Payne's apartment. But she leaves and her body is found trailed up an alleyway the next morning, blood and body tissue staining the snow. Max Payne's NYPD ID is next to the body. Payne's old partner, Alex Balder (Donal Logue), who's still working Homicide, picks up the case. He escorts Max to the scene of the crime and tells him that he is now the prime suspect in the murder. But staring at the picture of Sax's body in his office, he ties it to the murder of Michelle Payne. Natasha's tattoo is identical to one on one of the junkie's responsible for Michelle's killing. Alex leaves a message for Max Payne but by the time Payne arrives, Alex is dead. Payne is now the prime suspect in the killing of Natasha Sax and Alex Balder. And when a police informer passes details of the murders to Mona Sax (Mila Kunis), assassin for the Russian Mob and sister of Natasha, there's a price on his head. Three years after the death of his wife, Max Payne has become now a wanted man. But he senses that it's his time that has come.
When gamers first finished with Max Payne atop Aesir Plaza, they would have been heartened by videogame companies Remedy and 3D Realms Entertainment telling them, "Oh, and don't worry, you'll be seeing more of Max in the future. Dimension Films and Collision Entertainment are teaming up to make a feature film based on Max Payne!" That was back in 2001, shortly before my ageing PC waved the white flag on account of the graphical onslaught that was forthcoming. Max Payne was one of the last videogames that it could actually run without wheezing audibly as the screen was rocked by explosions and as it and I have stuck doggedly to one another, so have I remained with Max Payne, playing it once a year (or so) in spite of its now creaking visuals. It's fair to say that I was looking forward to this movie.
Ironically, just as my old PC was pushed to its limits by a game of Minesweeper, such is the march of technology that I would imagine that if I were to take possession of a brand new model, I could, via a Mii, an avatar or whatnot, animate a little CG character capable of a greater number of expressions than is Mark Wahlberg. Back when I was reviewing Shooter, I said of Wahlberg, "...that even if it were possible to force his teeth apart from the grimace in which they're set, we would only hear a howl of anguish." Max Payne not only gives us yet more grimacing but this time we get a full howl as well. And, making up a hat trick of unintended comedy, Wahlberg delivers a roar of such fury and of scrotum-clenching anger that he looks like nothing so much as the Hulk without the green skin and the elasticated trousers. Even the sky feels his rage, its flecks of orange and red offering us a brief respite from the snow that falls continuously in New York City.
It doesn't help any to have played Max Payne before watching it. Indeed, it might well be better not to, such is the disappointment that washes down off the screen to those well-used to seeing Payne as an action hero able to, Matrix-like, slow time. This Max Payne can barely stop himself in mid-sentence, albeit that you hope that he might, thereby shutting up and actually shooting someone. As it is, Jack Lupino (Amaury Nolasco), one of the villains of the piece, is much more likely to die of exposure from his standing out in the snow watching Payne take his time in figuring things out than from a gunshot wound. Just as one edges close to action in the film, such as an early shootout in Aesir Plaza, director John Moore brushes down his film and quickly returns to dialogue and exposition. But Max Payne was never that complicated a videogame to demand that amount of story. Did the relationship between B.B. Hensley (Beau Bridges) and Payne need explaining, with B.B. the old partner of Max's dad? Did we really need Chris O'Donnell as the nervous-looking right-hand man to Aesir Pharma's Nicole Horne (Kate Burton) and doing nothing but looking nervously at newspapers and an envelope? Did we need Alex's widow (Nelly Furtado) slapping Payne at the funeral of her husband? Did we need any more of Jim Bravura (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) other than what the game gave us? A cop out to bring down Payne? Couldn't we just have had Max Payne doing what he's always done best? Just dived into a room and, in slow-motion, artfully shot some of New York's finest goons? We could even forgiven them Payne following a trail of blood in one of his many dream sequences if we had just had more shooting.
In a lot of ways, mind, Max Payne does look the part. The snow never seems to stop falling, Toronto does a fine job of covering for New York and the movie is suitably dark and moody. The film uses locations from the game and does so very well, be it Roscoe St station, the boat on which the arms shipment from the Russian Mob was being held, the parking lot shootout or the Ragna Rock nightclub, hideout of Jack Lupino. I even thought I saw a blazing doorway not unlike that of the fire in the restaurant. It even sounds authentic, particularly the groans from Valkyr junkies in their moment of unpredictability between being high and needing their next hit. But where the game kept a steady pace with its explanation of events, Moore does things painstakingly for more than an hour. His Max Payne seems so new to Valkyr that it makes you wonder where he's been hiding these last few years. His missing it when its addicts seem happy to tag it in graffiti it on every derelict building and street corner suggests that he's not much of a cop. The twist that involves Aesir in the crimes is so obvious that anyone who actually needed Wahlberg to explain it as he does, should have been led out of the cinema, in a Homicidal-inspired 'idiot's break', so to avoid the rest of us feeling like the film was speaking to us...very....slowly...indeed. And with the film not forgetting Jack Lupino's interest in the occult, it explains the Valkyr high by bringing in Norse mythology. But rather than letting its audience imagine the visual effect of this high, Moore drapes his film in blazing skies, sparks in the midst of the snow and shadowy valkyries waiting to drag the dead and the dying out of battle. It's only cinematic equivalent is the gentle tranquilliser psychedelia of Madagascar that so calms Alex the lion, which is not quite right. In all this exposition, Moore has no choice but to drag the film to a finale that - at last! - delivers on the action. But, by then, it's much too late.
Play the game and forget this film. There's far too little action, the story is painted in broad strokes and (for the very stupid) primary colours and adds nothing to what videogamers would have been familiar with. Even Moore forgets what he's doing, choosing to highlight the violence by having his film flash red for an instant but then forgetting to carry this on past the first half-hour. Meanwhile, Wahlberg has so little connection to the film that had he been cut-and-pasted from his Calvin Klein advertisements of old, he couldn't have looked any more confused. When he shares a scene with Chris O'Donnell, the complete absence of anything like character or personality weighed down the film so heavily that the light reflected off the screen barely escaped. Even Mona Sax looks bored. But stick around until after the credits, even through the disapproving looks from the cinema staff, and that, just as the film hints at a sequel, she does so. If I was her, though, I'm not sure I'd bother.
Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:35:31