Max Payne may very well be one of the most maligned video game movies. It seems to come up in every discussion of bad game adaptations, and its name is inevitably met with much chagrin, although this tepid response is almost never justified. Everybody hates the film but nobody seems to know why. The poor word-of-mouth has become so pervasive that I’ve come to feel that many of the film’s detractors haven’t actually seen it. The sentiments one hears expressed about this picture mirror those expressed for Quantum of Solace, as we described last week: from what one hears, it’s almost as if the filmmakers committed some sin in releasing this film. While criticisms of Max Payne are usually on the right track, in almost all cases they go too far. Make no mistake: Max Payne is not a good film, but it is nowhere near as bad as its critics love to claim, and it does have some redeeming qualities, certainly enough to make it a worthwhile one-time watch.
Mark Wahlberg plays Detective Max Payne, a widowered New York cop that lost his wife and child in a home invasion. The hunt for the killers goes cold, and as time passes Max grows more obsessed with exacting revenge. He finds that the killers may have been high on the designer drug “Valkyr,” and his investigations lead him to cross paths with Mona Sax (Mila Kunis), who is out to avenge her sister’s Valkyr-related death. Max discovers evidence that suggests the drug may be linked with the Aesir Corporation, a company his late wife worked for. He descends into the proverbial rabbit hole, and soon uncovers a conspiracy.
It was not at all easy to write that short plot synopsis, and you might forgive me if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because the film’s plot doesn’t make much sense in the first place. Max Payne fails for this reason: its script is an assembly of loosely connected plot threads that are introduced throughout the film, some close to the end, and never resolved. The abovementioned conspiracy aspect, for instance, is broached only in the last twenty-or-so minutes, and as a result feels rather empty. It’s never tackled in any real depth, and evidently it’s included only as a way to connect the Valkyr drug to the murder of Payne’s wife and child. Were it not for the drug angle, this would simply be a film about a cop trying to find who murdered his wife. The film is plagued by a sense of meaninglessness that extends right to the second major player in the film, Mila Kunis’ character, Mona Sax. Though Sax has a reason to be around, she never really does anything. In the few scenes in which she appears all she does is stand about while Payne does all the dirty work. One almost feels that the character was written in just so a recognizable figure like Kunis could be attached.
The film, then, is poorly written, and that’s the real problem. Had several of the loose ends been cut (or otherwise tidied up) the narrative would have been much more palatable, and we might not have this complaint. As it is, the film does a good job of fooling us into thinking its narrative is working—it moves fast, never dwells, and uses smoke and mirrors to link characters together. Those who choose to spend some time thinking about the film find that none of it is ever explained or justified. Olga Kurylenko shows up at one point, but it’s only so she can be killed—a pity, because she turned in a first-rate performance, albeit one that lasted for ten minutes. And why is she killed? Essentially to rope Kunis into the mix, but in a way that lacks all impact. So the script is no good, and though we won’t go into it, most of the acting is mediocre. But this is where Max Payne’s failings end. If you could correct (or at least somewhat remedy) those two rather significant failings you’d be left with a good film—a well above-average action flick, and perhaps the greatest video game movie made yet.
For aside from the script and the acting, Max Payne is a well-directed work with a distinctive visual style and well realized action sequences. Director John Moore shoots with a sober camera in a low-movement, rapid-cut style that compliments the film’s heavy tone. Moore’s camera never defines how the action flows (as, say, the shaky cam does in The Bourne Identity); rather, it’s simply there to document whatever’s onscreen. Interestingly, much of the action is filmed side-on and at a long angle. The result is an open frame that frees up the characters to move in ways that we don’t see too often. Max Payne spends a lot of time moving laterally. In the most impressive instance of this, Payne darts from one side of an office building to the other with glass and office supplies exploding around him under hails of gunfire. But the best gunplay comes when Moore deploys a high-speed camera and shoots in much exaggerated slow motion. The definition allowed by the high-speed reveals the hard brutality of the action in a way that is startling—this again is well suited to the heavy tone Moore is going for.
Director Moore also implements an appealing Sin City-like aesthetic by matching dark grays and blues with small swatches of bright, intense color. New York City’s lights stick out like stars against the night sky. A nightclub Max visits is full of typical strobe lighting, but shadows still swallow him up. While 90% of the frame might be gray or dark blue, there’ll be a few dashes of color in there to break up the monotony. Moore never really capitalizes on this—he doesn’t match colors with characters as Michael Mann does, and he doesn’t associate colors with moods as Takeshi Kitano does—so the effect can feel a little superficial, but it at least gives the film a unique look that is very much separate from other action films.
Simply on a visual level, Max Payne passes the smell test. Consider that most video game movies—and most action movies, for that matter—look bad. Most are directed by individuals that don’t have a good handle on what they’re doing, or that don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. The Resident Evil films, for instance, are very poorly filmed, with too much camera movement and tacky zooms and slow-motion. Even the better modern action films like 16 Blocks have no distinctive style. Max Payne is not only capably directed, it’s also well directed, and plenty of its sights are memorable. (Though we should probably forgive the director for the horrible sequence near the end where Payne momentarily becomes the Hulk—he was only doing what the script asked of him.)
We’re left with a bipolar film. It’s a well directed and pleasant looking work, but the story is poor. It fails to hold up its end of the bargain. Sadly, the story is the most important part of the whole thing. If Max Payne had average direction and no distinctive look but had a great script with an airtight narrative it would have enjoyed a significantly more positive reception. As it is, the converse happened, and people tend not to care about how great a movie looks when the events within are meaningless and the characters are impossible to care for. But even then, Max Payne still does not deserve the avalanche of criticism it gets. Most action films have stories that we could care less about, and most action films aren’t well directed. At the very least, Max Payne successfully addresses one of those flaws. It is bad, yes—but it’s nowhere near as bad as common opinion would suggest.