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Max Payne the movie; hit or miss?

Submitted by on Thursday, 30 October 20084 Comments

We care about all the great game franchises you’ll find across the entire PlayStation universe, so when people go ahead and make movies about those titles we sit up and take notice.

One franchise that has yet to make the leap to the PS3 is Max Payne, and we really wish it would. After a not-too-bad-at-all conversion of Hitman to the silver screen, will Max Payne do any better at the cinema? Or is more likely to nestle in with the likes of the Tomb Raider movies (or worse, Alone in the Dark)?

Guest writer Cleric20 – a seasoned movie reviewer and owner of Dark Matters – tells it how it is. For completeness, his review is of the currently available US release of the movie, with Max Payne hitting cinemas elsewhere in November.

“I don’t believe in Heaven, I believe in Pain…”

Video game to big screen adaptations are invariably hit or miss affairs – critics tend to hate them, fans of the game get upset if plot details are changed and even the actors rarely seem to ‘get’ the character they are playing…

Having been an avid gamer since the days of Pong and ZX Spectrum, and having played and enjoyed both Max Payne (on PS2) and the follow up (on PC) I was really hoping that the filmmakers and Mark Wahlberg would do Max justice.

The Max Payne games were multi-format cult classic run-and-gun mysteries that implemented an impressive ‘bullet-time’ slow down (as opposed to frame rate drop); completely borrowed from The Matrix but it worked so well that it never failed to put a massive grin on my face when I’d kick open a door, and shotgun blast each of the adversaries before they’d even had time to draw their weapons. Oh, and there was a dose of Norse mythology fused into the noir detective storyline that made it much more interesting than a simple shoot-em-up.

Twentieth Century Fox picked John Moore (who already has a debt to Satan for making The Omen ’06 so average) to direct the film; he’s a guy who adheres to the ‘style over substance’ school of film making and that is how he tackles Max Payne. The hard-boiled noir look of the film is a stunning achievement – hypnotic hyper-stylised snow swirls in a constant poetic backdrop. The city is a wonderful bleak metropolis a la Sin City and Wahlberg’s constipated frown is a dead ringer for the videogame Payne.

Production values are high across the board and even the slightly wacky hallucinogenic visions of Norse Valkyrie demons are rendered effectively. Then there are the babes, sultry but bad ass assassin Mona Sax (Mila Kunis), and a sizzling cameo by new Bond girl Olga Kurylenko who wears a mean red dress (and seems to have a thing for videogame movies as she was in Hitman last year). So far, so good…

But there’s always a downside and here it is the plot that brings the payne (sorry). The movie is a mish-mash mostly ripped straight from the game and then padded out, remixed and jumbled together without much care for consistency or dramatic endeavour.

We find Max struggling with his guilt and rage over the death of his wife and child at the hands of drug addicted scumbags. For three years he’s been hunting the killer and now an outbreak of grisly murders looks to be linked to his family’s deaths. The join-the-dots linkages between scenes are liable to insult even the most retarded of teen gamers but at least there’s the tasty gun action right? Sure, there is some and when it eventually kicks off it looks very good – even working in some effective bullet-time moments – but it feels slightly muted and overly sanitised which goes against everything the original games stood for.

I can see that the studio wants to make this available to as wider audience as possible (in the US it got a PG13 rating) but when trying to stand alongside similar ‘feel’ movies such as Sin City or The Crow, Payne wimps out. Maybe if the audience had been dosed up with the film’s experimental performance enhancing drug called Valkyr, they might have gotten into it more but the screening I caught this at everyone seemed universally unimpressed.

The cast are average at best. Beau Bridges hams up his role of Payne’s former partner like his family will be killed if he in any way manages to look convincing. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges shows that he should stick to rapping as he sleepwalks around looking confused and Chris O’Donnell, Donal Logue and even Nelly Furtado round off the oddball assembled ‘talent’.

You know you’re in trouble when two nameless junkies get some of the best lines e.g.:

Junkie 1: Hey man, see that dude with the watch? Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Junkie 2: He could tell us what time it is?
Junkie 1: No you idiot! We could steal the watch, sell it, and get more drugs!
Junkie 2: That’s a brilliant plan! I have a gun!
Junkie 3: Man, what if he has a gun too?
Junkie 1: You idiot, law-abiding citizens aren’t allowed to have guns here! How do you think we’d survive if they did?
Junkie 2: Let’s go f**k this guy up!

Screenwriter Beau Thorne doesn’t seem to know quite how to bring all elements together effectively, so he sacrifices coherence – *cough* a side kick just happens to turn up and save Payne’s ass twenty stories up in a secure corporate tower? Huh? *cough* – and hopes that nobody is paying enough attention to notice.

Yes the Max Payne movie is slick and good looking, and is so nearly a great blast of crime mystery peppered with some decent fights but it trips itself up and in the end probably won’t please enough people to warrant a sequel. If you do find yourself buying into this, there’s a tease for a possible follow up after the end credits (but even this is in not in the same league as Iron Man’s Nick Fury post credit introduction).

My biggest problem with the film version when compared to the game is that for a climactic showdown, the ‘end boss’ is simply no challenge, whereas anyone who has played the game will attest otherwise! The usual action movie double standards are writ large when Payne can take a point blank clip of semi-automatic machine gun to the chest whereas the enemy falls to an unsatisfying single round.

If you’re prepared to let a fairly dull plot wash over you whilst you enjoy the visual styling and occasional flash of action then step right up, otherwise Payne is simply going to be another ‘failed’ videogame adaptation.

Perhaps a PS3 Max Payne 3 might redress the balance, because it would be a shame for the film to have taken Max to a watery grave of averageness…

Max Payne is rated PG13 (US) / 15 (UK). Our thanks go to Cleric20 for his time and talent.