We’re introduced to Max Payne (Mark “Talks to Animals” Wahlberg) through disjointed jump-cuts, as he’s gasping for air in a frozen river and grumbling,“I don’t believe in life. I believe in pain. I believe in death.” Somewhere in the first 120-seconds, screenwriter Beau Thorne manages to completely and utterly deviate from a video game script by Sam Lake that followed traditional noir and graphic novel formats so completely (in structure and as storyboard) that to deviate from it seems insane.
Instead of sticking to the preferred plot device of “beginning at the end,” Max Payne the film opens 20 minutes from that point to give a false sense of impending doom. (Even in the original Playstation 2 game, we opened on Manhattan in the midst of a slowly dying blizzard as Max lies on his knees atop a skyscraper—drained, surrounded by a SWAT team, happy to be at an end.) Cut to a bold red-on-skyscraper text intoning “One Week Earlier,” lazily taken from Panic Room: we’re introduced to generic gray buildings and generic cops, the least of which being Max Payne, who works the Cold Case division—itself loosely referenced as the place where people who “have all done something” end up. Payne spends his evenings tracking obscure leads to addicts who hallucinate about winged creatures (Valkyries if you’re familiar with the game. If not, prepare to wait 45 minutes.)
Unsatisfied, Payne crashes his snitch’s drug party, briefly meets up with Natasha Sax (the rather sultry Olga Kurylenko, reliving her earlier Hitman role) before she’s brutally murdered by Jack Lupino (Amaury Nolasco phoning it in, unlike on Prison Break). Payne is framed; we find out he is merely trying to solve his own wife’s mysterious murder; Payne’s partner (Donal Logue!) may have a break in the case, but he soon dies, and guess who gets blamed?
For the first hour, Max Payne pretends it is a hard boiled detective story. It ignores the original game, which began with a subway station shoot-out, and only gets worse as Payne literally stumbles into gunfight after gunfight until he’s facing down para-military units. Subtle references are kept: every time a character is “hurt,” the screen flashes red; Lupino’s hide-out is “RagNaRock,” and the junkies still mutter insane phrases. Payne’s wife is an employee of the pharmaceutical corporation, whereas in the game she was a member of the District Attorney’s office investigating them; the game begins with Payne coming home to find his wife and child murdered, but the film lets this go for at least twenty minutes; Payne uses “painkillers” to restore his health, but the film has him using drugs to fully enable killing “the bad guys.”
Payne won’t do any good for previous video game films, as it has even less shoot-outs than other Wahlberg films like The Big Hit, which also try to play off the “shoot ’em up” franchise. It is odd that a game like “Max Payne” was altered so radically in the transition to the big screen: here, Payne isn’t a DEA agent, nor is there any potential for a sequel. They even manage to remove the mildly interesting aspects of Mona Sax (played here by Mila Kunis, who can even butcher her lines in Russian) such as her being the twin sister of the mob boss’ wife. That doesn’t exist in this version.
While perfectly acceptable for winning opening weekend box-office, this is a complete disappointment for those familiar with the original game. To those just joining the crime scene in progress, you won’t be that disappointed, but the original game and sequel are far better. Then again, say hi to your mother for us.
John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.