A film review by Craig J. Koban





2008, PG-13, 99 mins.

Mark Wahlberg: Max Payne / Mila Kunis: Mona Sax / Olga Kurylenko: Natasha / Chris "Ludacris" Bridges: Jim Bravura / Beau Bridges: B.B.

Directed by John Moore / written by Beau Thorne, based on the video game

This film confidently and unremorsefully puts the “payne” in painful.  Based on the widely popular 2001 third-person/shooter video game of the same name, MAX PAYNE is dark, dreary, depressing, and utterly joyless.  This movie is so grungy and filthy looking that I wanted to spray the screen with disinfectant.  Moreover, this is yet another odious and smelly choice on Mark Wahlberg’s acting resume, which already took a cataclysmic drubbing earlier this summer in M. Night Shyamalan’s insidiously bad THE HAPPENING.  If it was Wahlberg's choice to appear in two of the most wrongheaded films of 2008...then mission accomplished.

After sitting through Shyamalan's wretched eco-thriller and now MAX PAYNE, it’s abundantly clear that Wahlberg is perplexingly capable of going from Oscar worthy turns (see THE DEPARTED and BOOGIE NIGHTS) to emotionless and sterile performances as shown in MAX PAYNE.  The only real apparent requirement for him in the film – on an acting level – is to look mean, gnarly, and tough and to mumble and murmur his way through dialogue with the emotional brevity of the undead.  In short: the most minimal effort possible to secure a big Hollywood paycheck.

Wahlberg wholeheartedly deserved his Best Supporting Actor nomination for his terrific work in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Bostonian crime saga, but in MAX PAYNE he’s surely will be up for top honors at The Razzies.  This is a new low, which shows the proven and capable actor slumming his way through a insipid and gloomy cop thriller that has weakly assembled CGI fantasy visuals and lackluster attempts at film noir.  His performance – much like the film that surrounds him – is sluggish, lethargic, relentlessly boring, and without any rooting interest.  At the beginning of the film Wahlberg’s wannabe Man With No Name-esque cop states, “I don’t believe in heaven.  I believe in pain.”  Truer words have never been spoken in a film: MAX PAYNE has the ability to overpower filmgoers and make them antipathetic.  You will, I guarantee it, hate yourself for seeing it.

The story is as bare bones as it gets.  Mr. Payne (Wahlberg) is a NYPD homicide detective that has been dealing with the emotional burden of his wife and child’s vicious murders by working on cold case files.  He is a friendless and vengeful loner that tries desperately to uncover the real identity of his family’s killer.  His fixation on closing this case has reached borderline manic levels.  It seems that everywhere that he goes and every lead that he follows is a dead end.  Yet, Payne is a rather determined badass that will go to any level for a positive lead.

A good lead does come his way in the form of an attractive young female killer named Mona Sax (Mila Kunis, in the worst casting of a female assassin…well…ever) who has an equally slinky and sexy sister that may have been knocked off by the same culprit that claimed the lives of Max’s wife and child.  Max also has a few other allies, one in the form of one of his father’s former partner’s, BB (Beau Bridges) and the other an unlikely source of assistance in the form of an Internal Affairs officer named Inspector Bravura (Chris “Ludicrous” Bridges).  However, the IA cop is not instantly a friend of Max’s, seeing as he is looking into his sorted past and trying to investigate so problematic murders.  

To make matters ever more complicated for our teeth clenched, ultra-trigger happy anti-hero, there is a back story that involves a military experiment gone totally ass-backwards that deals with a new liquid drug called “Valkyrie”, which looks like blue raspberry Kool-Aid.  Apparently, when a person drinks this colorful fluid it gives one the sensation of complete power and invincibility, not to mention that the real world around them transforms into a nightmarish hell complete Norse mythological creatures flying all about.  All of this culminates, of course, with Payne not only uncovering the real villain of the film’s plot, but it also shows the vigilante – in one really inane choice – testing the drug on himself, which only amplifies his lethal killing skills, much to the depraved enjoyment of pre-pubescent movie fans and video game-aholics everywhere.

For a film that tries to be slavishly faithful (I am assuming) to its pixilated antecedent, MAX PAYNE certainly disappoints for its amazing lack of visual interest in the proceedings.  It’s clear that the film is going for a dark, gothic, and ominous film noir palette, but director John Moore seems to misunderstand the most basic syntax and grammar of the genre.  Scenes are shot blandly and without any modest creativity (aside from two bullet time-styled kill shots and gun play, kinda nifty) and little attempt is made to use shadow play and foreboding cinematography for the proper eerie effect.  The film’s murky and uninspired look is further hampered by perplexing environmental conditions (it’s almost always snowing in the film…then raining…then snowing...and characters oddly dress like it’s late July or early August, and considering the huge levels of fluffy precipitation you’d expect large snowdrifts everywhere).  You also know that a big budget action film is in trouble when it can’t even make fake snow look anything close to real. 

Wahlberg gives a performance with the dramatic weight and resonance of a bad CGI creation.  Supporting players like Ludicrous are serviceable at best (he looks like he does not wish to be a part of this film in hindsight, though) and Beau Bridge gives a mouth-droppingly embarrassing turn as Max’s ally (or…is he?).  Former screen Boy Wonder Chris O’ Donnell shows up briefly in a role that asks him to look confused and befuddled (not much of a stretch).  And…what in the world is up with the casting of Mila Kunis in this film?  She was an infectiously luminous and adorably charismatic presence earlier this year in the terrific FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, but here she is forced to trudge her way through a role as a bitchy and world-weary assassin.  Any amount of fetching spunk and joyous enthusiasm she displayed in full force in MARSHALL has been usurped in PAYNE by her stoic, flavorless, and sullen performance.  Not only is she horrendously miscast in a role more akin to Angelina Jolie’s killer in WANTED, but Kunis also looks uncomfortable trying to fill these shows.  What a regrettable and disagreeable waste.

MAX PAYNE is an interest-free dead zone.  The story fails to captivate on even meager levels, largely because it’s made-up of spare parts and regurgitated elements of the witless cop/murder mystery thrillers (oooohhh…the hero cop goes rogue after he finds his family slaughtered under suspicious circumstances…how novel!).  The film’s story is also mind-numbingly predictable, so much so that even a blind person could see the motivations of certain characters and anticipate would-be shocking plot twist with minimal effort.  Even worse is the notion that Payne himself is an unsympathetic, borderline Neanderthalic cretin.  Since there are little attempts at humanizing this character throughout the film, he becomes less a figure that we care and root for and more one that is an impassive robot that simply engages in voyeuristic and sadistic carnage.

And speaking of bloodletting: There is something seriously laughable about this film’s PG-13 rating.  MAX PAYNE has enough murder and animalistic mayhem in its action sequences to fill half a dozen films, which only goes to show the endless hypocrisy of the MPAA.  Movies like RELIGULOUS - with virtually no blood or violence, but with “troublesome” ideas and language – get an R-rating rather easily, but movies like this that have sociopathic anarchists blasting their way through faceless enemies seem more youth appropriate.  Huh?  Now…just read the MPAA justification here for the film: MAX PAYNE is rated PG-13 for for violence including intense shooting sequences, drug content, some sexuality and brief strong language."  I cry foul: How could a masterpiece like Tarsem’s THE FALL – which has no sexuality, no seriously foul language, no nudity, and nor deplorable violence – recieve an R and MAX PAYNE gets off free with a PG-13?  Something’s rotten here.

Rating’s hypocrisy aside, MAX PAYNE’s  biggest glaring sin is that it’s simply boring and tedious.  The last thing one would expect in an emotionless and dramatically flaccid video game adaptation would be for it to be a watch-checking endurance test.  Yet, MAX PAYNE is certainly a hellish ordeal to endure with its lumberingly inept story, plastacine-like performances, and a surprising lack of an imaginative vision to boot.  Instead of the film generating a sick level of mordant entertainment value as an enjoyable shoot ‘em up actioneer, MAX PAYNE just sits there on the screen and sucks the life right out of its comatose viewers.  I felt hollow, sad, and empty as I left the theatre after watching the film, maybe because I saw good actors that I – and they – knew were above this miserable and trivial material.

Or, maybe I was sad that the film was an insult to video games in general.  At least with bad ones a player has the ultimate level of veto power over them: you can hit the reset button.  One does not have such luxuries with MAX PAYNE.

  H O M E