So we’re clear: I love video games. I played Max Payne and its sequel, and a few frustrating moments aside, I thought they were fantastic. But the movie was doomed to fail. We can talk more about how I knew that shortly, but if you’re unfamiliar with the source material, here’s how it goes: Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg) is a New York City detective with a murdered wife and a wrecked career. He works the desk in the cold-case morgue, where unsolved homicide investigations like his wife’s go to ferment. He has only one friend, his former partner Alex (Donal Logue), whom Max blames for not finding the guy who pulled the trigger on Mrs. Payne.
But when Alex uncovers a conspiracy that led to that longago murder, he turns up dead and Max goes rogue to bring down the whole house of cards. This personal mission will take him through New York’s criminal underworld, certain factions of which are strung out on an experimental drug that makes the user see avenging angels in every shadow.
Director John Moore’s film is shot in high-contrast blacks and grays that don’t recall the video game so much as 2005’s Sin City, one of its many elements that seem cribbed from elsewhere. The somber tone is ripped from those pages as well, but with its blather about angels and demons, as well as its leather-clad subculture of industrial techno fans, it reminded me more of The Crow minus a heart or a brain. What isn’t taken from these two films is bought wholesale from, not to put too fine a point on it, every cop movie ever. Wahlberg’s unsmiling performance doesn’t do the film any favors, not that he has much to work with. Firsttime screenwriter Beau Thorne packs the script with leaden metaphors meant to illustrate the depths of Max’s personal hell. Wahlberg proves it’s possible to deliver these lines with a straight face, but if the tittering audience at my screening was any indication, it’s impossible to listen to it without laughing. Mila Kunis scores some unintentional hilarity as… a contract killer? Maybe? It’s never quite clear, not that it matters — her role barely qualifies as window dressing, and her impact on the story is basically nil. These are only a few of the film’s myriad problems, but by all means, let’s not mince words: Max Payne is awful.
From its fetishized slo-mo (a nod to the game, which had a “bullet time” feature shamelessly ripped off from The Matrix) to its transparent third-act double-crosses, it amounts to a litany of action-movie clichés mouthed joylessly.
And here’s where the whole “adapting the game” idea goes wrong. The source material is somber as well, and it’s meant to give the player a sensation of participating in a modern-day film noir. That makes it a lot of fun, but if you take out the player and transpose it back to the screen, you just have a film noir, and not a particularly good one. Also, while you’re playing, you have the option of skipping the parts with the plot and just getting to the action, if that’s what you came for. In Max Payne the movie, you’re stuck with the character, who is bland as a hard-boiled egg, and with the plot, which is just no fun. These are the sorts of things you can get away with in a game, but I started to get really annoyed toward the middle of the film that no one ever acknowledges how silly it all is. No one ever cracks a smile or tells a joke, even a lame one. Let’s be frank: This film centers around a guy whose actual name is Max frickin’ Payne and you’re telling me no one thinks to crack wise about it? Come on. Alan Moore, the legendary comics writer of From Hell and Watchmen, once said he doesn’t like the movies made from his work because he simply rejects the notion that film is the medium to which all other art forms should aspire. Obviously, some adaptations work wonderfully, but in principle I agree. Sometimes comics should stay comics, TV shows should stay TV shows and games should stay games.
Less than half an hour with Max Payne convinced me that the character would’ve been much better off if he’d stayed on my PlayStation 2.
To comment on this story, e-mail Glen Baity at firstname.lastname@example.org.