25 November 2008

Max Payne Review

It's a movie adapted from a video game.



Oh, you're still here? Right. Well, allow me to qualify. Max Payne is yet another in a long, long, long line of ridiculously disappointing game adaptations - but more so, considering the strength of the game that this one is based on. A film based on a game that borrowed heavily from the likes of John Woo and - the at-the-time new and fresh - The Matrix, it unfortunately suffers greatly from the facsimile effect - losing one hell of a lot of clarity in transmission.

On paper, it should've worked...

Director with at least decent action credentials and a tendency to treat 'adaptations' with the utmost care? Check - see the solidly entertaining Behind Enemy Lines and the remakes of The Omen and Flight of the Phoenix for what I mean.

Actor who vaguely fit the role? Check.

Segue of Mona Sax into the story? Check and...eh...another random check.

But unfortunately, nothing fits together particularly well. There are individual bits that work well, but it is infinitely inferior to the sum of its parts, and its part don't exactly add up to much.

For starters - and for once - the story makes the transition to the big screen almost intact. It goes that Max Payne is a cop who has his whole family murdered by junkies - high and almost invulnerable after consuming a drug called Valkyr - and he's out for revenge on those responsible. After the case dead ends, his partner happens upon a coincidental piece of evidence that ties a seemingly random murder to that of Max's wife, and that sets him on the trail of the Aesir corporation - a large, morally suspect pharmaceutical company. The story is solid and constantly promises to be interesting, but first-time scribe Beau Thorne simply can't capitalise on it properly.

But beyond that neo-noir aesthetic and some rather scathing zingers - both almost certainly thanks to the game's creative director Sam Lake's involvement - there's absolutely nothing to commend the script for. Most of the exposition is under-cooked, and complacency seems to have struck the character development ("His family got killed. Do we really need to develop him more?"). But not only is there absolutely no development of Payne throughout the movie, he genuinely comes across as completely empty, but in the bad way. There is one moment where he is actually properly characterised - a flashback sequence before his wife was murdered - but there's no link between that Max and the Max we have to endure for the majority of the film. The shoe-horning in of Mona as a more significant character is also half-arsed, and the addition of a sister character to try to make us invest emotionally in her is simply useless.

What's more, there's a total dearth of action, and considering that the game was heavily action-orientated, and it was touted as an action-thriller, this is something of a sucker punch that you can't really recover from. What's more, it doesn't even manage to work on a balls-out-action level, seeing as we're force-fed Thorne's half-baked exposition for a good hour before we get to see any action.

The really aggravating thing is that when the action does spill out, it's fantastic. Moore has a great eye for visuals - from an awesome tracking shot of a man seemingly committing suicide, only to be revealed to be him being dragged out by a Valkyrie (or perhaps vice versa), to a fantastically shot roof-top showdown, he really does quite a lot with such sparse opportunity. You get the feeling that had this been put in safer scripting hands, Moore could've done a lot more with it.

It's even more of a shame that - shoddy characterisation aside - Mark Wahlberg does actual throw in a decent portrayal of Payne, chewing his way through his lines with suitable grit and determination. Mila Kunis is surprisingly good as Mona Sax - she manages to pull of sexily dangerous, despite her pixie-like construction - and Beau Bridges, though pathetically cast in a the role of someone called 'B.B', pulls of his character with a decent amount of conviction.

In closing, Max Payne the Movie is very much a child of the writer's strike, because in the hands of a more capable writer – perhaps even if Sam Lake himself had taken over entirely - this may well have gone down a treat. As it stands, clumsy exposition and under-cooked characters, along with a total relative lack of satisfying violence make for a something that doesn’t even register on a guilty pleasure level. But importantly, it isn’t a step backwards for video-game adaps; it’s just disappointing that it so closely flirted with being a forward one.

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