Judge Paul Pritchard wrote this review in bullet-time.
Our review of Max Payne (Blu-Ray), published January 20th, 2009, is also available.
"I believe in Pain. I believe in Fear. I believe in Death."
Film noir, The Matrix, and the films of John Woo were thrown together with a hint of Norse mythology to create best-selling videogame Max Payne. A third person shooter, Max Payne had two things that made it stand out from the crowd: its allusions to film noir and bullet-time. With just the touch of a button, gamers were able to enter bullet-time and, just like Neo in The Matrix, found themselves able to take down multiple enemies while diving through the air in super slow-mo. Any flaws the game had were rendered mute by this one glorious feature.
Following an impressive sequel, Max finds himself joining the likes of Mario, Lara Croft, Ken, and Ryu in making the jump to the big screen, but can he succeed where they all failed? Sort of…
Facts of the Case
Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg, The Departed) is a tortured soul, a cop living on the edge following the murder of his wife and child. Three years on, and Max is still working the investigation in an attempt to apprehend the one remaining gang member responsible for their murders.
When Max is given a tip-off that leads him to the sultry Natasha Sax (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace), he is drawn into a world of Russian gangsters, drug dealers, and strange winged creatures that may somehow be linked to the death of his family.
I'm going to go against the grain here and say that Max Payne is not the turkey some would have you believe. Yes, the acting is sometimes woeful, the dialogue clunky, and the plot at times nonsensical, but dammit, as flawed as the movie is, I ended up having fun with it.
Ironically, it is the film's faithfulness to the plot of the videogame that causes most of its problems. While Max Payne may have offered a well-structured and gripping storyline to gamers, blown up on the big screen, that same plot is revealed to be pretty threadbare, a case of style over substance, if you will. Though attempts are made to flesh the film out, primarily through the inclusion of Mona Sax, who comes complete with her own subplot, they fail to add anything substantial. Max Payne is a vacuous movie that succeeds thanks to its one glimmer of invention.
You see, had Max Payne played it completely straight and attempted to be a by-the-numbers thriller, I doubt I'd even consider recommending it. But Max Payne has an ace up its sleeve, an ace that it is careful not to overplay despite being totally reliant on it. Those familiar with the videogame will be aware of the importance of the drug Valkyr. It is ultimately the MacGuffin that keeps the action flowing, and allows the film to go just a little bit insane. The effects of the drug are dependent on the user: while some become super soldiers, others suffer terrifying hallucinations. It is this jump into the bizarre that makes Max Payne a completely different proposition. It certainly isn't enough to elevate the film above guilty pleasure status, but a guilty pleasure it definitely is.
Action scenes, some of which are ripped straight out of the game, are shot with plenty of (John Woo inspired) style. There's something deeply satisfying about seeing bad guys sent flying from a shotgun blast, or witnessing Max pulling of an impossible shot, mid-backflip. Despite the competence of the action scenes, the combination of slow-mo and the game's trademark bullet-time have become a staple of modern action movies, and as such don't quite have the impact they once might have had.
Visually Max Payne is borderline outstanding. Admirably sticking to the game's gritty graphic novel/film noir look, the washed-out colors and deep blacks do a better job of maintaining the film's tone than the actual screenplay does. But what impresses most, and does more to save Max Payne than any other element of the film, are the scenes that depict the drug-induced hallucinations of Valkyr users. Initially only revealing shadowy angelic creatures, the film soon expands to incorporate stunning sequences with Valkyries swooping down from the heavens and plucking bad guys from the windows of their apartment blocks. Even more impressive, once Max himself is under the influence of the drug the movie goes completely ape. The sky suddenly erupts into flame, buildings disintegrate into nothing, and Valkyries circle the ensuing violence, waiting to pick off the bodies of the fallen. Pointless? Perhaps. But it's undeniably fun; just don't expect to like yourself afterwards for admitting to it.
The cast contains a number of "names" that you normally wouldn't associate with a videogame adaptation. Main man Mark Wahlberg is sadly a little flat here, apparently confusing Max's steely gaze with boredom, and with Max Payne coming hot on the heels of his turn in The Happening, 2008 is probably a year he'd rather forget. Wahlberg has consistently shown himself to be an accomplished actor; he maybe just needs to put a little more consideration into his future projects. Mila Kunis, as ass-kicking babe Mona Sax, is perhaps the most convincing actor here, but the screenplay apparently forgets about her character altogether around the halfway point, only bringing her back into the action in fits and starts. Beau Bridges is brought in to lend the film some weight, and, despite his character arc being so obvious only an idiot would fail to see what's coming, comes out with his dignity intact. Olga Kurylenko, following her role in another videogame adaptation, Hitman, is given around five minutes' screen time before having her body parts strewn throughout an alleyway. Musicians Ludacris and Nelly Furtado also make appearances. Ludacris is given the meatier role of the two and puts in a solid performance, while Furtado's role is so brief as to be almost unnecessary. Rounding out the cast is a slightly weathered looking Chris O'Donnell, who appears to still be paying penance for Batman and Robin. His role requires he only makes a brief appearance but, apart from being used as a punching bag, does very little of note.
Despite the compression artifacts that plagued this screener copy, the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer was impressive and would indicate an excellent looking picture awaits those who purchase the final retail copy. Black levels are strong, and though colors are intentionally muted the picture remains sharp and detailed throughout. The soundtrack is particularly strong, with the 5.1 mix being crystal clear. The rear speakers are given a decent workout; even when the action is ramped up, individual sounds are still easily distinguishable.
Max Payne comes to DVD with a fairly standard set of extras. The 30-minute behind-the-scenes featurette offers little, but is compensated for by the far more informative commentary, which reveals the director's approach to the subject matter. The most interesting special feature is the animated graphic novel detailing the final moments of Michelle Payne, which acts as a precursor to the film. The DVD also features the unrated cut of Max Payne which only seems to add a little more blood, but nothing to remedy the film's problems.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Beneath its cool exterior there is very little substance to Max Payne. Everything it has is up there on the screen, it has nothing to say and no hidden subtext. For some this will be a blessing, and as such they will embrace its mix of mindless violence and gritty aesthetic. Of course there are those who refuse to accept this breed of dumbed-down action movie, and, in this post-Matrix world, perhaps they're right to expect more.
If there were a league table of live-action videogame adaptations, Max Payne would find itself in the top half, just below the Resident Evil trilogy but someway off the mighty Mortal Kombat. It's not high art, nor is it particularly clever, but fans of the game, and those who aren't interested in a mental workout, might just find enough here to keep them entertained.
Ultimately the entire film's success is reliant on the drugs, but then, the same could be said for any number of rock bands…
The judge attempted to hand down a guilty verdict, but Max Payne pulled off a bullet-time dodge and saved his no-good ass.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2009 Paul Pritchard; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.