Go back to Max Payne

Written by: Rik

Date posted: November 19, 2008

It never pays to get too excited about a film based on a game, but despite everything I was cautiously optimistic that Max Payne might actually buck the general trend of awfulness and turn out to be a watchable, perhaps even enjoyable, film. For one thing, the games are very cinematic and constantly reference the movie world, and the story of a broken-down rogue ex-cop struggling to clear his name is easier to translate to the screen than, say, the story of an overweight plumber jumping on top of mushrooms. Or, you know, Street Fighter.

Of course, once it was released in the US, I quickly took note of the generally terrible reviews Max Payne was getting, but bearing in mind that the last game-to-movie adaptation I was vaguely interested in, Wing Commander, was so triumphantly unsuccessful in the US it didn’t even make it onto the big screen over here, I decided to put those to the back of my mind and shelled out whatever ridiculous sum they charge to get into the cinema these days to go and see it.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first – Max Payne is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good film. If you’ve played (and enjoyed) the games then things will probably be more acceptable (and comprehensible) to you, but if you took a non games-playing friend (or your girlfriend) to see it, chances are they’d a) not enjoy it, and b) insist on choosing the next one you go and see together if they don’t c) sever all their ties with you first.

Having said that, it’s not totally awful. I’m a big fan of the games, and while I still think this film isn’t as good as it could have been, I didn’t come out feeling angry and embittered about it. Some plot details have been changed, but there is at least a feeling that a genuine effort has been made to keep to the general spirit of the games, which is just about all you can ask if the film itself isn’t actually going to be any good.

Anyway, “Marky” Mark Wahlberg IS Max Payne, and in the film he’s spent the last three years working in the cold case unit of the NYPD in the hope of trying to find out who killed his wife and baby in cold blood. He’s got good reason to be glum, but in case you didn’t get it, characters who know him spend much of the first half of the film explaining to those who don’t just how messed up he is – “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from Max Payne” – that kind of thing.

During the course of his investigations, Max finds a link to his ex-wife’s old job at Aesir Pharmaceuticals and a drug called Valkyr, but not before he finds himself wanted for the murder of a young woman. With internal affairs, led by Jim Bravura (Ludacris) breathing down his neck, Max, with the aid of the dead girl’s sister, Mona Sax (Mila Kunis), and family friend (and ex-cop) B.B. Hensley (Beau Bridges), Max sets about clearing his name and avenging the death of his loved ones.

That’s close enough to the game for my money, although if you want a few points on what’s different, here goes. Firstly, there’s no mention of Mafia involvement, so there’s no Vinny Gognitti and no Punchinello family. Jack Lupino does feature, but here he’s an AWOL ex-soldier gone crazy on Valkyr rather than a supplier for the mob. There’s also no mention of Alfred Woden or the mysterious “Inner Circle”. The DEA isn’t mentioned either: Max doesn’t work for them, his ex-partner Alex is a homicide detective, while B.B. has left the force altogether to take up a role at Aesir.

I can live with all that though, and in a way the story kind of makes sense, without it necessarily being tense or interesting in any way. The action has understandably been toned down (presumably to avoid breaking the world body-count record) but there are a couple of fairly exciting gunfight bits which make use of a slow-motion effect similar to “bullet-time” (although we’re given no Matrix-like explanation for things slowing down in this way, so we presume Max has now special powers and just happens to be fairly handy with a gun). Also on a positive note, it has to be said that the look of the film is just right, with the theme of “NYC in a blizzard” being recreated reasonably faithfully.

On the minus side, we have the poopy dialogue (Max is fairly monologue-light here, but there are a few cringe-worthy lines) and the fact that there’s not an awful lot to hold your attention other than to constantly compare it to the game and repeatedly ask yourself how it could have been done better. Anyone drawn to Max as a character will probably be disappointed by Wahlberg, who is quite good at looking sulky but hard to take seriously as the brooding, angry man Max is supposed to be. It doesn’t help that his voice isn’t nearly gravelly enough, and at times he sounds like a whiney teenager.

The rest of the cast are okay-ish, although none of them have all that much to do. Mila Kunis isn’t all that convincing as Mona but not awful either, Ludacris (I’m not going to call him by his real name, because if he wanted to use it he shouldn’t have made up that stupid nickname for himself in the first place) is surprisingly passable in a fairly straight role, and there’s a bald guy who looks like Billy Zane but isn’t (IMDB later tells me he was in Prison Break and 2 Fast 2 Furious – wow!) who brings the requisite amount of unhinged psychotic behaviour to the role of Lupino.

It’s not embarrassing to watch or anything, but at the same time I’d stop short of recommending it. Perhaps what’s most disappointing is the fact that while the game is actually fairly sophisticated, well thought-out and slickly produced, the film of the game is rather clumsy and cartoonish. While media studies students could probably go into some more in-depth analysis of why this might be, frankly, that’s beyond the scope of what I wanted to do here, which was essentially to tell you what I thought of the film. So: it’s okay. If you must go to the cinema to see it, prepare to lower your expectations, otherwise wait for the DVD to appear in your local Blockbuster.