A big fan of the video games that inspired the movie, John has seen the film adaptation of Max Payne. Now he’s here with his review, which does include spoilers.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Amaury Nolasco, Chris O’Donnell, Donal Logue, Kate Burton, and Olga Kurylenko
Written by: Beau Thorne
Directed by: John Moore
Based on: the video game series “Max Payne” from Rockstar Games
SYNOPSIS: Max Payne (Wahlberg) is a tortured man. He spends the day rifling through cold case files, and by night, he’s sticking it to the scum of the city, following leads that might be able to guide him to the truth behind the brutal murders of his wife and child. He thinks the one that got away was a strung out junkie, but when Max begins to follow the trail of the Valkyrie he discovers a grander, more sinister plot.
REVIEW: It seems redundant to announce spoilers on a movie based on a video game, especially since anyone who rushed to see this movie–the same people who will read this review–have played the video game. Thus, they have already been spoiled. Oh well, small price to pay to see a movie based on Rockstar’s incendiary film noir style, third person action games. Till now Rockstar has been reluctant to ever allow a movie to be based on one of their games. Personally, I’m still waiting to see a Grand Theft Auto movie come to fruition. The reluctance in understandable. After all, Hollywood has a tendency to come at certain titles with a totally single minded approach. To make a solid movie of a Rockstar game, it needs to be understood that the violence, the action, the gritty characters, and the sexual insinuations are only on the surface. I’ve never encountered a Rockstar game that didn’t have satirical undertones or psychological depth. That’s the reason why Rockstar is my favorite game label. There’s always something interesting hidden underneath the chaos and carnage.
The Max Payne games are no exception. They are meant to tell the story of a man derided by tragedy and fueled by inner rage and turmoil. At the conclusion of the first game Max gets his revenge, but a question lies in what happens after revenge. In the end of the second game Max finds himself able to close the book on his tragic past and finds himself reborn. To make a successful movie of this game is to understand what really motivates the story. I can definitely say I am relieved that the people behind the movie understood that. That doesn’t really mean that the movie is entirely successful, however.
I will say credit is definitely due to Director John Moore. Moore clearly knew the material, and he knew how to pull it off on a technical side. On a visual level, the film is absolutely picture perfect to the game it’s based on. The cinematography is graceful and never gimmicky. It shows exceptional fidelity to the style of the game but never becomes fanwanky. Definitely not like the works of a certain moronic director who has too much money and too little talent (**coughs** Uwe Boll! **coughs**). Moore clearly has enough discipline not to let the action overshadow the heart of what makes Max Payne work. What I do take a bit of issue with is the manner in which he handles the narrative. Max Payne was always meant to have a film noir style narrative. A popular trait of film noir is the use of inner monologue from the protagonist. One of the things that I love in the games are the beautiful narrations from Max. The narrations helped the gamer connect with Max. You were able to feel his pain, his desires, and his anger. This drove the player to continue the game and see how the story resolves. This storytelling device would have worked just as well on film. After all, it worked for Sin City and Memento. I also think it would help the non-gaming filmgoers click with Max on a personal level. Hearing his personal thoughts makes you feel like you’re in on a protagonist’s secret that none of the other characters know. The film does use it in the beginning and the end, but that isn’t enough. It needs to be constant.
On a related subject, I am surprised that they didn’t do constant narration considering how strong the dialogue actually is. One thing that actually shocked me about this movie compared to other video game based films was how mature the dialogue was. Never once was I groaning from the sound of a cliche action movie line of the sort that hack screenwriters would piece together between recycled action scenes that were cut from better action films. Considering the strength of the dialogue, the lack of voiceover narration does diminish the film’s potential. I will also add that the story’s evolution feels a bit clunky in parts. Sometimes you feel that some parts are left out, and some points feel a bit forced to the point that may have those who are unfamiliar with the game raising an eyebrow in bewilderment.
It does help to know the story of the first video game, because you’ll have an easier time understanding where the story is going and how it got to this point. You’ll also enjoy seeing key scenes from the game recreated. I was actually surprised that they were able to find places for the whacked out hallucination / dream sequences which were a notorious element in the game’s story development and that they were able to keep it rooted in reality to not make the film needlessly surreal. In the later sequence of the film, Max uses the drug Valkyr to keep himself from freezing to death, and at the same time, to fuel him to become the unstoppable force that we know Max Payne to be. The finale shootout sequence in the Aesir Pharmeceuticals building has a bit of psychological tension added when we see Max potentially sacrificing his sanity as he almost gives himself to the Valkyrie. In “Sane People Land” that means he was about to die. I was also relieved that the idea of the Valkyrie was used sparingly in the film, and their presence was actually quite appropriate, given the nature of the story.
On the level of an adaptation, I was questioning why they cut and changed certain bits. For instance, why did they change the part that after Max’s family’s murder, when he joined the DEA to follow the lead on Valkyr? Why did they cut the whole part where Max was working undercover to crack the Valkyr case, as opposed to him working cold cases? The whole reason he joined the DEA and took the Valkyr case was because he wanted to find out why his family was killed. One of things that added tension in the game was that Max was on the run from both the mob and the cops. There was also the fact that they cut the whole subplot of The Inner Circle, a plot element which comes into play very heavily in both games. The loss of that plot point also removes great characters like Alfred Woden and Vladimir Lem. It also lessens the level of importance of Nicole Horne to the story. In the film Horne is present and accounted for, but she’s pretty much there to set up a potential sequel which is definitely clear when you see the post-credits zinger.
Another tragic loss was the character of spineless mobster Vinnie Gognitti who became an major player in the second game. There is a reference to Gognitti in the film, just not one of any consequnce. Much like how JK Rowling has been consultant on the Harry Potter films, I think that the screenwriters could have benefitted from having some of the folks at Rockstar on board to consult them on how incorporate more aspects of the game into the movie. I will say it is especially bold on the writer’s part to expand on some of the secondary characters, particularly Jack Lupino (Nolasco) and BB Hensley (Beau Bridges). They also gave the character of Mona Sax (Kunis) more screen time than she had in the first game, which works in cinema, particularly since Mona becomes a more important character in the second game. So if a sequel is in the works, a solid foundation will have already been laid down for the character.
John Moore may have an exceptional visual eye, but he needs to work on his chops as an actor’s director, because it’s a dangerous game when you let your actors have too much leeway, particularly if the actors aren’t up to the task. I can breathe a sigh of relief for most of the cast. Wahlberg actually dared to not play the game to make the character his own. The strategy worked, and it shows. Wahlberg carries the weight of the film with total confidence, and he never phoned in his performance or gave us an emo version of his character in The Departed. Wahlberg never plays Marky Max; he IS Max Payne. “Payne to the Max,” as the game says. Mila Kunis accomplishes a similar feat in her portrayal of Mona Sax. No more is she the ditzy Jackie in That 70’s Show. Now she’s showing her steely pissed off face, and she knows to use it.
Another standout in the cast in Amaury Nolasco as Jack Lupino, the junkie psycho who flies with the angels of death. The character of Lupino in the game was a psychotic satan worshipper, and though the satan worshipping element is gone, the psychotic killer aspect is still very much present. Nolasco sells it with just the right amount of punch. As BB Hensley, Beau Bridges makes for an excellent turncoat villain, just like his brother did in Iron Man. Those unacquainted with the game, may not be surprised with the plot development, but they’ll definitely be surprised with the prospect of Beau Bridges playing a baddie. On the other hand, I do wonder why certain actors were cast, specifically Chris O’Donnell. No disrespect to the man, but the last time I saw him he was giving an incredible performance in Kinsey. I think there are better things he can be doing with his time than playing an inevitable snitch with ten minutes of screentime. Also Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges felt totally out of place in his role, not just because the character of Jim Bravura is a Dennis Franz like character, but because seeing Ludacris in costume made me think he looked just like a kid in his dad’s clothes, pretending to be a cop.
I approached this film totally cognizant of the track record of video game based movies and was making sure that I didn’t get my hopes up. I do admit that there were things in the trailer which did make me excited. As a regular movie, Max Payne is still lacking the proper discipline to be a solid movie. As a movie based on a video game, I will say it’s definitely a breath of fresh air after we’ve been forced to suffer the “Ouvre of Uwe (Boll).” Though I will not say no to a sequel, especially if Wahlberg and Kunis come back, I just hope that they learn from their mistakes the second time around. The problem with every video game based movie is that the filmmakers are so obsessed with being their video game inspirations that they’ve forgotten to be a movie. With that concept in mind, I will say Max Payne comes very close to that level.
ESSENTIALLY: With solid performances from the two leads, above-par dialogue, and excellent cinematography, it’s the best video game based movie to date. The problem is, it’s got a long way to go before it can be declared a movie in its own right.
FINAL GRADE C+