DVD Review: “Max Payne”

Cover of "Max Payne [Blu-ray]"
For the benefit of those who haven’t seen Max Payne yet, but are considering renting the DVD, I’m going to spoil as much of it as possible for you. Why? Because this is a film that shouldn’t be seen under any circumstances, even if you’re dragged off an airplane under the Presidential Directive of Rendition, and are placed in a dark room where CIA operatives intend to show it to you in order to forcefully extract information.

Forewarned is forearmed.

In the movie, based on the immensely popular 2001 videogame, Mark Wahlberg (The Departed, The Happening) stars as the titular character, a detective whose wife and infant son were brutally murdered by three home intruders, one of whom managed to escape and was never found. Despondent over the loss of his family and that the final assailant was never brought to justice, Max now works the Cold Case division of the NYPD, and in his spare time hunts down clues as to who the final killer might be.

Three years have passed since the murders, and one night Max tricks three punks into trying to rob him in a subway men’s room, and instead takes two of them down–riding one for clues while the third escapes into the darkness of the subway tracks. As the last punk flees, he is suddenly accosted by what appear to be winged demons (or possibly angels), before he meets his end as a train slams into him on its way to its final destination (ba-dum-bump!)

Max then heads to a club to gain more helpful info from the stoolie who led him to the subway punks. While there, he meets up with Russian hottie Natasha Sax (Olga Kurylenko) and her sister Mona (Mila Kunis). The girls enter into a heated debate before Max brings Natasha home to gain intel on a series of odd wing-shaped tattoos he spotted on one of the subway thugs, and which Natasha has as well. When Natasha unintentionally insults Max’s dead wife, he kicks her out of his place. Shortly afterward, Mona is murdered–seemingly by the selfsame demons from earlier, and Max soon becomes the prime suspect. Caring more about solving his wife’s murder than clearing his name soon plunges Max into a race to find the real killers, and eventually forces him to team up with Mona–head of a Russian mob family–before Max can be brought in by Lt. Jim Bravura (Chris “Ludicris” Bridges), another detective investigating both Natasha’s murder and that of Max’s old partner, in which Max is now also a suspect.

When Max Payne debuted in October of 2008, it opened to a fair amount of box office, if not critical, success. The primary reason for this, I suspect (in addition to gamers wanting to see a film based on their fave), is that the film was primarily advertised as a fantasy/horror film dealing with a cop on the edge trying to save his soul. Both director John Moore (Flight of the Phoenix, The Omen remake) and writer Beau Thorne (making his screenwriting debut here…and it shows, painfully) deliberately try to keep the story ambiguous for the first half of the film by showing various people reacting to the presence of demons or angels in their midst. There’s a scene early on in the club where Max meets Natasha, of a young girl on a couch doing drugs and looking up in fear as angel shadows hover above. It even seems for a second as Max peers between a crack in a wall that he sees the shadow of an angel’s wing pass by. When Mona visits a young thug to find out more about her sister’s killers and Max himself, the guy tells her first “The devil is building his army,” and that he has “many names”. About Max, he imparts that “he’s searching for something God wants to keep hidden. You shouldn’t be around him when judgement day comes.” Like the game itself, there are many references to Norse mythology: the pharmaceutical company where Max’s wife worked is called Aesir. Max’s ex partner is detective Balder. The wing tattoos are the symbol for the Valkyrie, the shield maidens who carried the glorified dead to Valhalla.

The problem is, both the trailer and the film are based on a LIE in order to sucker in audiences. 90% of the people on planet Earth believe in some type of afterlife, and they enjoy seeing different cinematic artists’ interpretations on both the promise and horror of what might lie beyond the grave. It’s one reason why spiritual love stories like Ghost and horror films like The Exorcist do so well. We don’t just like to be spooked; we like to know why.

Max Payne lies to its audience. It’s like a kid toucher who entices a young child into his van with promises of a puppy, then closes the door shut once he’s in and has his way, laughing as he goes. When the final revelation occurs–that Max’s wife was killed because she found out about an aborted drug used to turn ordinary soldiers into super-soldiers with no fear, heightened reflexes and increased stamina–it’s like a loud wet fart in a room full of upscale party guests: an embarrassment to good storytelling, and all that might have been.

It’s even more sad to watch when, after jumping into a freezing river to keep from being shot, Max hallucinates after taking a double dose of the drug in order to keep from dying of hypothermia. His visions are glorious, with dark, winged angels prodding him on and the sky itself catching on fire as the potential promise of Valhalla beckons…before descending back into a sub-standard revenge flick. Liken it to the failed promise of the new Star Wars trilogy, where we were finally going to find out how Anakin Skywalker fell from grace to become Darth Vader, the universe’s ultimate badass… only to find out he was just some whiny punk kid who missed his mommy and had girlfriend/abandonment issues. A simple month in therapy could have saved the Jedi Order, and countless audience members millions of dollars.

It doesn’t help that while the effects (primarily by Toronto company Soho VFX) are first-rate the majority of the time, the story is as bland as mayonaisse on white bread. For a film which initially attempts to mislead its audience with the promise of supernatural goings-on, it doesn’t even reach the shallow depths of storytelling present in Angel Heart. What major set piece action sequences there are, tend to be laugh-out-loud funny, such as when Max uses his infinite ammo pistol (good thing he found those cheat codes!) to go up against no less than seven security guards with automatic machineguns. Or when in a warehouse he jumps backward and shoots over his head to kill a would-be shooter on a catwalk above and behind him. Or when heading to club Ragnarok, Max suddenly turns into Batman, appearing out of nowhere in the second between when a henchman opens and closes a door leading to the abandoned club…and there are no hiding places anywhere nearby.

Both triumphantly and sadly, Wahlberg gives his all to portraying Max, but the character gets beaten up so frequently and is generally regarded as such a douche by his fellow officers, one wonders if he’s even the hero of his own story. He gets shot at least four times, yet never has his wounds tended to and apparently is virtually impervious to harm, even before he takes the drug. Mila Kunis (That ’70′s Show, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is viable as Mona, yet it’s embarrassing that she’s paired with a Ukranian actress (Kurylenko) as her sister, yet doesn’t attempt to use a Russian accent even once (and Kunis herself is Ukranian, for God’s sake!!) It’s especially galling when, during their first encounter, Kunis is able to carry out a brief conversation with Kurylenko in flawless Russian.

Speaking of Kurylenko (Le Serpent, Quantum of Solace)–who declined full nudity in this film, having paid her nude dues in Hitman–she seems certifiably determined to appear in every crappy videogame-to-movie adaptation, destined to be known more for the curves on her admittedly spankable backside rather than any other discernible form of talent. Beau Bridges (Stargate SG-1, The Fabulous Baker Boys) puts in a semi-classy appearance as the old partner of Max’s long-gone dad, yet late in the film delivers one of the most random lines of dialogue I’ve heard in any film in quite some time (trust me…if you do watch this, you’ll know it when you hear it). Sadly, Chris O’Donnell (Kinsey, Grey’s Anatomy) is still paying off those community service points from Batman & Robin, to have to show his face in dreck like this.

Extras on the disc include both the PG-13 and unrated director’s cut (and aside from a quick scene of two girls kissing, there’s virtually no difference between the two). A Michelle Payne animated graphic novel, detailing the last year of life for Max’s wife and how she came to die. It’s animation which is creepy in the “that doesn’t feel right” type of way, and there’s no other word to describe it but chintzy. A behind-the-scenes featurette called “Picture – Part 1″ is the laziest, most randomly shot BTS I’ve seen on any DVD, and is not only a snoozer to watch, but makes director Moore seem like nothing more than an intolerable, foul-mouthed idiot. The feature-length commentary by Moore, production designer Daniel Dorrance (Timeline) and visual effects supervisor Everett Burrell (Blade: Trinity, Sin City) is only moderately informative.

Max Payne is a study in futility, from an audience member’s perspective. On the one hand, videogame fans will probably be pleased it doesn’t stray too far from the source material. But as someone who just wanted to see a good movie, it doesn’t stray enough from its source–something I never thought I’d write up in a review. Every other scene virtually cries out “if only they’d done this instead!” If only Mila Kunis had managed to effect a Russian accent to add another layer of believability to her character. If only the movie didn’t try so hard to be a loud batch of dumb rock ‘n’ roll fun like Shoot ‘Em Up (a movie which to this day, I still can’t believe I enjoyed). If only they’d gotten the imagery for the Valkyries correct, rather than relying on more Christian symbolic imagery for angels and demons (even though they do look awesome). Most disappointingly, if only the movie had been about a cop walking the line between heaven and hell, where angels and demons lurk around every corner, waiting for mortals like the young girl on the couch to redeem themselves, or slip into final despair (then again, we already did have Constantine, and that sucked monkey balls). Then, when Kurylenko’s Natasha screamed out “Not yet! Not yet!” in that darkened alley as seeming winged avatars swooped down upon her, it would have meant something…

…instead, we’re just stuck with plain old, run-of-the-mill, Max Payne.

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