'Max Payne': Gaming The System, Gloomily

Mark Wahlberg as Max Payne and Mila Kunis as Mona Sax. i i

hide captionBullet time: Revenge-bent cop Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg) stumbles into a vast conspiracy involving not just Big Pharma but supernatural forces too.

Michael Gibson/20th Century Fox
Mark Wahlberg as Max Payne and Mila Kunis as Mona Sax.

Bullet time: Revenge-bent cop Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg) stumbles into a vast conspiracy involving not just Big Pharma but supernatural forces too.

Michael Gibson/20th Century Fox

Max Payne

  • Director: John Moore
  • Genre: Action
  • Running Time: 100 minutes

Rated PG 13: Shootouts, drug-fueled freakouts and the occasional scary winged creature.

Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges as Jim Bravura. i i

hide captionChris "Ludacris" Bridges plays Jim Bravura, a cop who realizes the ramifications of Max's plight.

Michael Gibson/20th Century Fox
Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges as Jim Bravura.

Chris "Ludacris" Bridges plays Jim Bravura, a cop who realizes the ramifications of Max's plight.

Michael Gibson/20th Century Fox

Set in a chilled-to-the-bone metropolis whose only heat comes from a gun barrel, Max Payne tries to refresh the vigilante genre with lots of flash and a few exotic references. The movie declines to stoop, however, to such tricks as acting and characterization.

The protagonist, derived from a video game, is a brooding New York policeman who has had himself transferred to the cold-case division. Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg) doesn't actually care about any unsolved case except his own: the brutal murder of his wife and baby.

Tracking suspects through rain or snow — it's always doing one or the other — Max hasn't come any closer to the killers. But then everything starts to fall into place, beginning with a subway encounter with three small-time thugs.

One is some sort of junkie whose drug of choice summons a shadowy winged creature. (No, it's not that dark knight.) Later that same evening, a flying monster also eviscerates a Russian vamp who has just failed to seduce stalwart Max.

Suddenly the cop is a murder suspect, and the victim's sister, a sexy mobster, is prepared to kill him. But eventually Mona (Mila Kunis) decides that Max is innocent and becomes his ally.

Her assistance proves helpful, since the movie also dabbles in the police-corruption genre. That means that just about every friend Max has ever had is secretly his enemy. No wonder the opening scene finds him thrashing in a frozen river, contemplating whether he can summon the strength to wreak vengeance on the scoundrels who left him to drown.

Some of those scoundrels work for Aesir Pharmaceuticals, a company named for the Norse gods. The movie also includes a visit to Ragnarok, a decrepit nightclub named for Norse mythology's version of Armageddon. And those winged creatures just might be Valkyries, the death angels who took Norse warriors to their eternal reward.

In a feint at political commentary, the film also mentions the "war on terror": It seems that Aesir has developed a drug that turns average soldiers into fearless berserkers. Don't waste time considering that plot point, because the movie doesn't; the script's druggie angle could just as easily have been inspired by a TV news report on crystal-meth labs.

Like so many recent American action flicks, Max Payne was filmed in Canada, but it owes its metallic-blue look to Hong Kong cinema. Director John Moore, who helmed the 2006 remake of The Omen, crafts an effective (if hardly original) techno-age update of the film-noir look. And most of the fight sequences are dynamic, if not quite up to Hong Kong standards.

That should be enough to make the movie a hit, and its post-credits epilogue clearly promises a sequel. That would be a more enticing prospect if Max had a less generic back story, or if Wahlberg gave a performance even one-tenth as engaging as he did in The Departed.

"I believe in pain," says Max in his introductory remarks, but Wahlberg looks more bored than agonized. Rather than bringing a video-game character to fullness, Max Payne reduces its performers to flat-screen dimensions.

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