Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Max Payne (2008) Review

Max Payne
There's an army of bodies under this river,
but they fell asleep before the excitement began.

Let me just say that I am a huge fan of the Max Payne videogames. They are some of my favorite games of all time, and it's not just because they are a blast to play. Both games feature intricately woven stories that weave through an assortment of colorful characters, plot twists, and the aforementioned action, which took its influence from The Matrix and John Woo. And I know your thinking, "Oh no, now we have an overzealous fanboy that acts as if the game is the greatest thing in the world". Don't worry though, because I won't turn this review into a slam against the movie for supposedly desecrating the integrity of the game, except for a few comparison points to explain any problems. On the contrary, it follows the game more than most other movies of its kind, but it doesn't follow it enough.

Plot Synopsis: Max Payne is a cop in the NYPD, and one day after coming home finds his wife and baby girl murdered. He manages to take down one of the intruders, but is too late to stop the other from escaping. Years later, he now works in the cold case unit, where he looks for any profiles that may tie in eventually to his family's murder. One night while visiting one of his underground connections, he runs into a woman by the name of Natasha Sax who goes home with him. After being kicked out for reminding Max of his dead wife, Natasha ends up dead in an alley that night with Max's wallet at the scene. Now with all suspicion turned toward him, Max must uncover the mystery behind Natasha’s murder with the help of her sister Mona, and finds the trail leading to a powerful company called Aesir Corporation.


The core plot of the game is basically left intact, but the problem is that all the movie has is this core. Nearly all of the supporting characters that kept you invested in the story have been eliminated, including Vinnie Gognetti, Vladimir Lem, and the entire Punchinello mob family. The characters that remain in the movie are badly mishandled. The only actor with any investment here is Mark Wahlberg as Max, who gets the narration and mood of the character right. But aside from this, Wahlberg is really bland in the role and doesn't emotionally invest us in Max's journey. Mila Kunis is completely miscast as Mona, and doesn't sell the "tough girl" attitude that she has to portray for the role. So we have the two most important characters in the story botched, which means we don't really care about what happens, especially when the rest of the supporting actors don't bring anything to the table either.

But at least there is action to make up for this, right? Oddly enough for a videogame adaptation, a genre that is consistently slammed for emphasizing action over plot, there is a surprising lack of action for the majority of the film. And because the script has been stripped of any kind of depth the story once had, that means we have to wade through about an hour of boring exposition before finally pulling the triggers. The first gun battle is well done actually, nailing the kind of John Woo action that the game so faithfully reproduced. But then after that the movie kind of falls into a rut, with only small snippets of action interspersed through the remaining running time. The final denouement on top of the Aesir building, once a satisfying and explosive event, goes out with a whimper and feels anticlimactic.


The movie's last saving grace, apart from some intense moments of action, is the incredible visual style created by director John Moore. Successfully recreating the pulp novel stylistics of the game, Moore drapes the movie in a dense atmosphere of moody lighting and film noir storytelling. The visions induced by the drug Valkyr, which plays a large part in the plot, are effectively creepy and haunting with images of dark angels (or valkyries if you want to be politically correct) enveloping the drug's users with fear. I get the feeling that the crew spent most of their production time trying to make the movie feel like the game, in which they succeeded, but they failed to elaborate on the story more so it could speak for itself.

Had Max Payne succeeded, it could have been a big turn around for videogame movies and would have shown that there is potential in that medium for translation. But it looks like we will have to wait even longer for that time to come.


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