Image from 20th Century Fox's 'Max Payne', starring Mark Wahlberg
Bad things happen to people who get on Mark Wahlberg’s bad side. Just ask Matt Damon in “The Departed”, Chiwetel Ejiofur in “Four Brothers” or just about anybody who was in “Shooter”.In his new film, the bleak, neo-noir Max Payne, he gets to spend every single one of the movie’s 100 minutes in Settle Up heaven. Very early on, Max lets himself be cornered in a subway bathroom by three junkies. The moment you see Wahlberg walk by them you know how this is going to go. That doesn’t prevent you from being entertained by watching Wahlberg drop a beating on these poor suckers, all by himself. Who needs an Entourage when you have that much attitude? Usually a one-track mindset dooms a movie – and this one has its own problems - but thanks to Wahlberg's intense performance and knack for cracking heads plus John Moore's stylish direction, Max Payne is an effective revenge movie with supernatural hints and that rare video game adaptation that's not abysmal. It’s not very original either, but considering how low the bar has been set in this genre, it is still a marked improvement. The film begins near the end, with one of those annoying voiceovers that indicate we’re about to go back in time to the beginning of the story. “I don’t believe in death,” Wahlberg narrates in that detached tone he’s famous for. “I believe in pain.” Max is a burnt-out NYPD detective buried in paperwork in the Cold Case unit. Several years earlier, his wife and child were killed in a random break-in. He’s been trying to solve the crime ever since. The breadcrumbs he follows lead to a failed super-drug developed by a giant pharmaceutical company for the military. It may have failed in war, but on the street, the drug known as Valkyr is the new Crystal Meth. The blue liquid turns its users into Insta-Junkies with an insatiable craving and gives them ‘jacked-up rage, like a steroid rage on…well, steroids. Beau Thorne’s screenplay added a supernatural bent to the video game’s street-level grimness. Winged demons in the shadows dot the hallucinatory landscape. There are also enough references to Norse mythology to make Walt Simonson proud. A tattoo of the demon Valkyrie is key to the movie’s central mystery, and a club called Ragna Rok is the setting for an important scene. You can see the influence “Sin City” had on director Moore as he created his noir-like vision of a decaying metropolis. In fact, the film seems closer to a graphic novel than a video game adaptation. The washed-out color palette adds to the sense of isolation and hopelessness. Happy Hour doesn’t exist here, folks. Visually, the film is captivating. But the usual Achilles heel for films like this – character development – flares up early and often here. The supporting cast suffers the most. The ringleader of the drug pushers is Lipino (Amaury Nolasco) who spends the bulk of the film bare-chested and hiding in the shadows on rooftops. Considering how charismatic he is as Sucre on “Prison Break”, Nolasco is wasted here in a role where he has barely any dialogue. Mila Kunis fares only a bit better as Max’s reluctant partner, the Russian gangster Mona Sax. The former “That 70’s Show” star still looks like she has a prom to get dressed for, but at least she seemed comfortable holding the small arsenal she carries. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is badly miscast as an Internal Affairs detective investigating Max and Beau Bridges gives a typically dour effort as Max’s old mentor BB. And why did Chris O’Donnell sign up for a glorified cameo as a corporate whistleblower?? Wahlberg isn’t exactly utilizing the Strasberg Method here, either. In fact, his dead wife’s ghost is given more depth than most of the characters in the movie. But the filmmakers clearly banked the movie’s chances on Wahlberg’s toughness alone. Good choice, considering he may be the only believable American action star under the age of 40. After “The Happening”, Wahlberg seems happy to cut loose and kick ass, even if he has to go through the action hero motions. One scene finds him staring at his disassembled weapon on a table, he cocks his shotgun with one arm in another sequence…oh, and he never, every runs. Because tough guys never run. Max Payne is so tough he brings a shotgun to a machine gun party – no, really. He does. (Why do movie cops always prefer shotguns? Wouldn’t they hit more people with a 9MM??) The action scenes are loud and furious, especially the two office shootouts that bookend the movie. Frankly, I was shocked the movie was only rated PG-13 because there are some graphic scenes that while not bloody, still made you flinch. My guess is that a few scenes with abrupt cutaway shots and muted audio helped Fox get the friendlier rating. Not having played the video game (I’m a "Madden" and "Guitar Hero" guy myself), I can’t judge Max Payne on how true it is to the source material. But it’s clear Moore paid just as close attention to old noir movies and even recent fare like “The Matrix” and “Dark City” for visual inspiration as he did the game. Unlike comic book films, which the better they are, the more they stick closely to the original material, perhaps the trick to making a decent video game movie is to take a sharp detour from the source work. This is the kind of movie that could easily be dissected like a lab frog if I were to comb through it and pick every nit. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, sit back and enjoy Wahlberg’s morose, measured effort. For a guy who makes at least $10 million per film, has a single-digit golf game and at age 37, still looks like he could model underwear, Wahlberg always looks pissed off. If he were doing romantic comedies, the attitude would be a problem. But Max Payne exists in a New York straight out of “Taxi Driver.” There’s danger around every corner, and the sun never shines here. We don’t need some sensitive punk with feelings. Wahlberg’s scowl works just fine.
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