Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Beau Bridges, Mila Kunis, Donal Logue, Chris O’Donnell, Chris Bridges
Written by: Beau Thorne, Sam Lake
For some reason, filmmakers have a very hard time converting video games into entertaining movies. It probably has something to do with turning something that’s interactive into something that’s passively observed. There’s also something to be said about the barebones plots that many video games are wrapped around, like the game Doom. Another problem might stem from the level of pre-visualization that video games bring to story meetings. Books and graphic novels come close, but they still leave room for interpretation. A well-produced, plot-driven video game, with developed characters on the other hand is a comprehensive blueprint that simply has to be followed. Take a video game like Max Payne – where players spend half their time watching instead of playing – and the guesswork is practically removed. Filmmakers don’t want that; they want to be creative, not regurgitate someone else’s creativity. That’s why almost every film-adaptation of a video game has to suck, because it’s the vision that gamers are expecting warped and twisted by the lens of someone who’s probably never played the game. Strangely, that’s not why the film incarnation of Max Payne disappoints. The reason appears to be something more nefarious.
The plot of the film is straightforward. Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg) is a police officer that came home one day to find his wife and child brutally murdered by drug addicts. One of the killers got away and that knowledge has haunted Max, driving him into the depths of his precinct to work cold cases, presumably as a way to exorcise demons. One night, while out to pump a snitch for information, Max meets Natasha Sax (Olga Kurylenko) who ends up getting hacked to pieces while leaving Max’s apartment. By dumb luck, her death reveals a new lead in Max’s family’s murder that leads him on a dark path involving drugs, betrayal and revenge with a bullet.
The film version of Max Payne strays from the video game version so much so that it casts suspicion over the entire production. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine that the filmmakers already had a gritty crime drama screenplay in their possession and decided to slap the Max Payne brand on it and tweak a few details to give the film some semblance of its namesake. Major differences include: Max is not part of the DEA and not undercover, which means the more satisfying plot of Max being hunted by police, because they think he’s mafia never happens. This means there’s a lot less shooting. In fact, the film goes uncomfortably too long without anyone firing a shot. Characters are also all over the place, with BB (Beau Bridges) now working as some kind of corporate advisor and Jim Bravura (Chris Bridges) bumped down from Deputy Police Chief to a lowly lieutenant in the Internal Affairs Bureau. Adaptation is a tricky science and characters get absorbed into other characters all the time, but there was absolutely no reason for these changes. In fact, the alterations are so drastic and completely unrelated to the sources material that it begs the question of if new names were simply given to existing characters of a different movie. As such, Max Payne quickly devolves into a mess as disparate scenes try to stay coherent, but fall short. The biggest disappointment is the lack of inner monologue that gave the game its hardboiled, film noir edge that truly distinguished it from other games.
For everything Max Payne gets wrong it does one thing exceptionally well, which is capturing the visual style of the game. Max Payne, the film, is beautiful to look at. Fans of the game will enjoy seeing familiar settings brought to life, like the subway, the Aesir building and the unrelenting snow covered outside. Where the film takes creative license with the game also looks amazing. In the game, the junkies are constantly muttering about the “flesh of fallen angels” and the film marvelously plays with that concept by allowing audiences to see the angelic hallucinations in artistic ways, melding them with the reality of the film. The slow-motion effects also look great, but isn’t used enough to be satisfying and one of the instances actually overdoes it, forcing audiences to watch Max fall backwards for what feels like a solid minute.
The acting isn’t the best, but then again the material the actors are working with isn’t the best either. Everything is watchable, but feels hurried – as if the non-Max Payne scenes were snipped from a longer movie. It just seems weird, which is a shame, because with this movie looking as good as it does, it could have been one of the rare films to be a successful video game film-adaptation.