Why Max Payne Was So Damn Cool

Why Max Payne Was So Damn Cool

Max Payne the film, opens tonight in theaters nationwide, starring Mark Wahlberg and Ludacris. It’s based on the 2001 videogame which was a loving amalgamation of all geeks hold dear. We offer up this remembrance of Max Payne, or…”Why Max Payne was so damn cool.

In 2001, a game hit the scene that tried (largely successfully) to capitalize on the recent success of The Matrix that blended Hong Kong movies, mythology, and comics together into a fairly solid package. An ‘M’ rated package, which was worth every penny of its rating.

The acclaimed third person shooter was first released for PC by Remedy Entertainment (produced by 3D Realms and published by Gathering of Developers) before porting over to Xbox and Playstation 2 later that year, and finally hitting Macs in 2002. Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne hit in 2003 to…well, less than stellar reviews and a very awkward shower sex scene.

And now – seven years later, the movie.

So what’s the story about, and why do older PC gamers get a little misty-eyed when the name comes up?

Throw in a Punisher-esque origin with a murdered wife and daughter brought down by junkies from the Mafia along with some Norse mythology (!?) and you certainly have all the individual premise points you need for a solid action story, don’t you think?

Basically, the story runs like this – Max’s wife and baby (chilling scene – seriously) were killed by junkies high on a new drug called Valkyr, which saw Max transfer from the police into the DEA. Within a few years, Max is working undercover as part of the Punchinello crime family (the chief traffickers of Valkyr). They discover he’s a cop, and the game’s afoot. Crosses and doublecrosses, along with the Russian mob, twisted drug-induced dreams, and military ties all play a role in the unfolding of the story, which ultimately leads to a showdown on the top of a skyscraper.

What was different about the game was that the moody story was told through a narrated noir graphic novel, written by Sam Lake, who also provided the modeling for the lead character. A panel at a time, and a mix of drawn art and photography Fumetti-style, this was an interesting way to tell the story, instead of cutscenes that were starting to pollute action games at the time. These graphic novel snippets gave the basics of the story, identifying elements like Valkyr, the designer drug spreading across the city, Alex Balder (whose name should sound familiar to Norse mythology fans), Alfred Woden, Ragnarok, and the Aesir. There are direct references to several mysteries and noir, including then recent hits like The Usual Suspects. That last reference isn’t name-dropping or hyperbole – Max Payne was one of those rare games which emphasized the story over the action and “kewl” effects.

A side note – the movie trailer shows more than a few supernatural beings flying around. Er…yeah. Max Payne - okay, aside from the drug overdose scenes – was virtually all real-world in your face grit. No flying people. In fact, the game was so…normal in its approach and scope that to pass the final level and win, you (as Max) had to shoot guy wires to bring an antenna down on top of a helicopter.

Guy wires.

Game creator Lake took a massive number of influences to make Max Payne, and pulled it off. The game felt like a blend of “playing” a dark graphic novel and a noir HK actioner again, with a strong story.

As for the gameplay itself, as mentioned earlier, Max employed true “bullet time” as made popular for American audiences in The Matrix. Press a key during a fight, and time slowed down to a crawl, allowing impossible shots, ducks, rolls and punches. Occasionally, when a character was killed, you’d get a slow, glorious shot that showed the character’s death in bullet time.

Oh, and ammo virtually never ran out.

While elements like the bullet-time slow-mo mode and cinematic deaths have been repeated several times since this game’s release, few, if any have taken this narrated graphic novel concept (aside from Max Payne 2, of course). In fact, it has more in common with the motion comics now being made than it does with most video games’ story sections. What was brought on by budget concerns (“graphic novel” pages were cheaper than cinematics) turned out to be a style people remembered from the game almost as much as bullet time.

Already, the movie has seen a number of reviews mention that the movie seems more like a comic/graphic novel adaptation, and this is largely why. With the actual story already laid out in this method, all filmmakers have to do is fuse the comic-style story telling with the Hong Kong action sequences, slow down time in a few scenes, and voila, you have an accurate adaptation of the game. While the story at heart is a bit cheesy, with the Norse elements combined with Noir sensibility, there was enough there to keep a gamer’s attention in between massive gun fights, and to actually add to the overall experience.

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