Max Payne / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | October 17, 2008 | Comments ()
I realize it may seem like we here in Pajiba-land might come down a bit too harshly on video-game adaptations. While I’m sure there may be a tad bit of snobbery at play when dismissing the hilarious attempts of Uwe Boll and Paul Anderson offhand, it shouldn’t be misconstrued (for my part) as an elitist rejection of any and all video-games. On the contrary, I think some of the best console and computer games have legitimate claims as high quality narratives, as potent a force in pop culture as bestselling novels or TV shows. The issue is usually one of translation, as well as of the marketing machine behind both mediums. Speaking to the former, video-games rely on a visceral immediacy and a much different suspension of disbelief. If your character is walking along, bonking a steady stream of identical monsters, and then suddenly morphs into a kickass ninja-dragon, well, for some reason that works. Try that ridiculous shit in a movie and you end up with Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. The two mediums rarely cross-breed well. Added to this, films and games generally function as tie-ins for one another; if one gains popularity, the other will usually get a half-assed commission. For every shitty “based on a video-game” movie, there are probably fifty terrible “based on the movie” games, a phenomenon that can only increase in frequency since both are becoming part of the same media-blitz. This has been going on since olden arcade days, and should’ve ended when E.T. single-handedly murdered the Atari 2600 in 1983.
These films have failed (and if Max Payne is any indication, will continue to fail) because the adapters don’t have the guts or brains to make an ingenuous story, content to have their film bumble through in-winks and other fealty to a source material that is unable to be translated on screen. Maybe if I’d played the games Max Payne the film wouldn’t have seemed like such a nonsensical clusterfuck, but that’s my point - the film adaptation needs to function on its own merits a priori.
And really, maybe it should have. Director John Moore sets off to make a cryptic little neo-noir, half Sin City caricature and half The Big Heat archetypal revenge flick. On the one hand, style appears to be on his side. But Moore not only fails to balance these extremes, he doesn’t even try to make the tone consistent. Every scene seems to exist in an independent universe, moving from pat action sequence to cartoony noir to balletic bullet-time shootouts to (I shit you not) images of Armageddon. Independently, some of these shots make sense, or are even impressive, but together they craft a tone of unintended anarchy.
Mark Wahlberg, scowling slab of granite he is, can’t distinguish Max Payne from the other billion one-note action characters he’s played, but the poor cretin actually performs as his Frank Castle rip-off better than anyone else in the film - the ensemble cast: Ludacris, who finds his existence enough to qualify as a thespian; Chris O’Donnell, who is evidently still alive; Mila Kunis, who looks and acts like a cranky teenager (and plays an assassin!!); and Olga Kurylenko, who utilizes her ten-minute role to pulse across the screen like a blob of sexy Jello. Oh, and Beau Bridges is in there somewhere.
It’s possible that somewhere in John Moore’s head this all made sense - the harder-than-steel cop who becomes a vigilante has worked countless times before, and use of insane hyper-expressionist imagery is perfectly in keeping with the roots of films noirs, but nothing in Max Payne carries its own sense of urgency; the bullets and bodies and staccato violence (which somehow didn’t earn an R-rating) are all meaningless, dark and devoid of subtext. Nothing in the film exists intrinsically in the film, Max Payne feels three or four times removed from the concepts it sprang from. Maybe this idea sounded a hell of a lot better on paper, but that’s where it should have stayed.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).