Now if there was ever a video game that could make a good movie it was Max Payne, a neo noir action game with cinematic gameplay thanks to the introduction […]
Now if there was ever a video game that could make a good movie it was Max Payne, a neo noir action game with cinematic gameplay thanks to the introduction of bullet time and a tragic revenge story with twists and turns throughout the plot that by the end of the game you can truly get a sense of how broken Max Payne feels. The movie, much like many of its kind, did not succeed in making a compelling film out of their game’s plot. Unlike most of the films I’ve written about in this series, I have actually both played Max Payne and watched this film before – I saw it at the cinema with some pals. I remember thinking it wasn’t bad at the time. I am twelve years older now (which makes me seven now) and I have a more critical mind towards movies and games – so let’s see how much my mind will change watching Max Payne in 2020. Despite this I have little to no recollection of the movie beyond the fact that I have seen it.
Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg) is a NYPD detective working down in the cold case department, where other detective only say his name in whispers and never make eye contact. That’s because Max Payne has had a tragic backstory – we hear from another cop that his wife and child were killed. Max is clearly not over this tragic event and has a fight in a subway bathroom with a group of drugged up thugs, one of whom he interrogates by shoving a picture of his dead wife in his face and asking if he recognised her. He can only reply in gibberish. Meanwhile one of his friends runs away but then has an hallucination which freaks him out and he doesn’t notice the oncoming train.
Max goes to his contacts house to complain about the lack of information he got from his junkie friend but bumps into Natasha Sax (Olga Kurylenko, who was also in Hitman (2007)) who has an angel wing tattoo on her arm. She is taking a drug in a blue vial and goes home with Max but she doesn’t give him the information he needs either and he demands that she leaves when she tries to seduce him. She leaves in a huff but starts to hallucinate demons before she is brutally murdered in an alley.
The next day, Max’s old partner Alex Balder, takes him to the crime scene where he identifies the body – it turns out she had stolen his wallet and it was found at the scene. Alex tries to get Max to tell him what he was doing but Max fires back accusing his old partner of botching the investigation into his wife’s death. Alex goes back to his office but makes the discovery that Natasha’s tattoo is the same as Michelle Payne’s and the two deaths could be linked – so he goes to Max’s apartment but when Max arrives he is beaten up by an unknown person and Alex is lying there dead. Max wakes up in a hospital where he is greeted by his old friend and former detective B.B. Hensley (Beau Bridges).
Hensley gives Max a change of clothes and takes him to Alex’s wake where his wife (Nelly Furtado) chews him out for making her husband feel he never did enough for Max and she slaps him in the face. As he leaves he is stopped by Lt. Bravura (Ludacris) of Internal Affairs who brings him in for questioning as he is the lead suspect of the deaths of Natasha and Alex. The interrogation ends with Max having a realisation and waltzing out of the room and into Alex’s office, through a hoard of detectives who all shout at Max Payne without anyone trying to stop him, and he finds what Alex wanted to tell him about.
Max bumps into Mona Sax (Mila Kunis), Natasha’s sister who was also at the party from earlier. She starts beating Max with a baton but Max convinces her that he didn’t kill Natasha and that they should work together to find the actual killer. They visit the last person Natasha phoned, Owen Greene, but when they get there is is drugged up and hallucinates the demons grabbing him out of the window and falling down several stories to his death. They go to a tattoo parlour where they learn about the wing tattoo – it is based on Norse mythology, specifically the Valkyrie. In Norse mythology they believed that people only went to heaven if they were killed in violence. Max drops Mona off at one of her contacts who tells her that the killer is a guy called Lupino but also warns her to stay away from Max Payne. Payne, meanwhile, breaks into an Aesir – a pharmaceutical company that his wife worked for and Hensley currently works at as head of security – but finds a pile of her documents are missing.
He goes to confront an Aesir executive Jason Colvin (Chris O’Donnell) who reveals what Max’s wife was working on when she was killed – she worked on a military contract to produce a drug that enhances a soldier’s abilities to fight, including suppressing their fear and pain. However, it only worked on 1% of test subjects and Lupino was one of the successes – everyone else became addicted to it and killed other subjects to get their next hit. Colvin tells Max he’ll confess everything but wants his help to escape Aesir. They only make it out of the door when Aesir’s security squad surround them and shoots Colvin. Bravura happens to be in the building to talk to Hensley and he calls in a squad as a firefight between the security team and Payne, who narrowly escapes being arrested by Bravura with the documents Colvin had.
The documents held the truth about the Valkyr drug and taking what Colvin said, Max deduces that Lupino was the third man and the one who killed his wife. Mona figures out he plans to fight Lupino, even if it means he dies in the process. Payne finds Lupino in a warehouse and is heavily losing the fight before Lupino is shot out of nowhere by B.B. Hensley. Hensley takes Payne out of the warehouse before Hensley’s right-hand man knocks Payne out. Hensley guides a handcuffed Max to a frozen waterfront, along the way revealing that he was the one who killed Max’s wife and baby. Hensley had to kill her as he was selling the drug and she came across documents that incriminated him. He puts a couple of vials of Valkyr in Max’s jacket pocket to make it look like a drug-induced suicide but Max breaks free and avoids Hensley’s gunshots by jumping into the cold water. Hensley decides that there is no way Max could survive and walks away.
Max has a vision of his wife and daughter but she tells him “not yet” and he wakes up just in time before drowning and gets out of the water. However to avoid hypothermia he takes the Valkyr and it gives him the strength to go on. He gets to the Aesir building where Hensley is trying to make his escape, asking Aesir boss Nicole Horne for a helicopter to help him escape but she ignores him. Payne goes on a rampage throughout the building but he takes a few shots to the chest and is beginning to hallucinate the valkyrie demons (mythology nerds will know the contradiction between those two words) are coming to take him away but that is interrupted by a vision of his dead wife and Mona Sax blasting a guard that was about to kill Max Payne. She offers to buy him time if he can finish the job.
Mona stops Hensley’s right-hand guy from setting up a C4 trap by shooting him dead, but he survives just long enough to activate the detonation. This spooks the FBI and NYPD outside the building led by Bravura and they storm the building. The bomb was supposed to stop Payne from getting to the roof but he makes it anyway and without much hesitation shoots Hensley through the chest and falls to his knees, ready for death to take him. “Not yet” his wife once again tells him and he is caught by the police squad. That’s how the film ends (apart from a post-credit scene where Mona & Max read a paper with Horne’s picture on the front cover that I did not know existed until Wikipedia told me about it).
I’d like to talk about some of the good stuff Max Payne does – it is visually very good. The dark and dreary colours used here works well with the dark, gritty noir tone that the film attempts to have. The scenes where Max hallucinates are pretty decent too though I feel they could have done more with that. I don’t even think the direction is that bad, on a visual level everything works. Good job Max Payne.
But also bad job Max Payne because there is a lot here that completely lets the film down. The big one is Mark Wahlberg who could not have given a more “here for the paycheck” performance. None of the cast really bust out their best performance – except Ludacris who at least seems like he is trying, but being the star of the whole film Wahlberg gives a really inconsistent performance and he doesn’t really gel with a noir-type role. Wahlberg can be a decent actor, I just don’t think he cared in this case. He swings between his normal Wahlbergy self and being this gruff voiced hardened detective in the voice overs but his gruff voice just does not have the gravitas of James McCafferty (who does get a cameo in the film as an FBI Agent).
The movie takes the basic story of the game and changes a couple of things here and there – instead of Max Payne beating Lupino, he gets bailed out by Hensley just before he betrays our protagonist. Also the game ends with you killing Nicole Horne but the movie keeps her alive as a sequel hook for a film that will never see the light of day. They also don’t show the killing of Max’s family until halfway through the movie instead of being at the start like the game which gives us the context as to why Max Payne is being an angry so-and-so.
Condensing the plot of the game down in order to make sure the movie isn’t too long comes with its own set of problems – pacing is an issue where at times it feels like the movie is going along at a machine gun pace as they rush through the plot to get to the important action sequences. Mona takes almost no convincing at all to trust Max and believe him. We get no time at all to care about Alex before he is killed off. The script isn’t great either – it doesn’t even embrace the noir stylings of the game which could have at least made it a bit fun.
All in all, Max Payne is a good looking movie that is otherwise incredibly dull with a cast that should perform better but let down by a generic script and a rushed plot. Director John Moore has had a mixed bag when it comes to his movies and that’s maybe putting it nicely – but there’s definitely been worse video game adaptations but this is not an enjoyable movie to watch. It did manage to be a relatively successful film but not enough to ever warrant a sequel, thankfully. My 16-year old self who watched this thought it wasn’t that bad – he was wrong and I will never speak of him ever again.