Saturday, October 25, 2008

Max Payne review

I was excited for this movie. I even wrote a post about it. And now after seeing it this afternoon, I have to say that I'm really disappointed. Not because the movie is terrible. It is not a good movie, but nor is it terrible. I'm disappointed because it should have been good. Many of the elements of a good movie are there, but they're all jumbled about and mismatched and in the end the whole is nowhere near the sum of its parts.

Max Payne is a terrific video game. Not just for the gameplay itself, but for the story, the atmosphere, the noir, the feeling that Max Payne is carrying the burdens of hell on his shoulders. I still believe Sam Lake, who wrote the game (and whom the original Max was modeled on), could write a flat out awesome novel (hint hint, editors). Part of the problem with the movie has been pointed out by the designers, in that we don't know the full scope of Max's past until halfway through the film. Interestingly, that's when the movie hits its stride. In the game, part of what keeps the pace is that Max is wanted for murder, on the run from cops who believe he killed one of their own, while at the same time unraveling the mystery of who killed his family. Max is burning the candle from both ends. In the first half of the movie he's an outcast, more a nuisance that vigilante. The first half is a C-/D+. The second half is a solid B/B+ (terribly anticlimactic ending notwithstanding). As a whole I give it a C, but the kind of C where I'm even more disappointed because it has so many ingredients to be a really good action/noir movie.

The first half of the movie is grim. Not just grim, but dull. It's a police procedural without the snap, Sin City without the wit. The cinematography is terrific throughout, but there's only so much sluggish dialogue we take take through neat shots of snow and rain. In the game, Max Payne is a tormented soul, a man on a suicide mission from the very beginning. In the movie, Max is more glum and depressed than tormented. He frowns his way through the opening scenes. When cops tell the new guy to stay away from Max Payne, we assume it's simply because he's not a very good conversationalist. It's only halfway through--when we see what happened to Max's family and he sets out to get revenge--that the movie develops a pulse.

The performances are a shame. Wahlberg is fine, but he needed more Dignam. Max should be a coiled snake, ready to strike at any moment. The other actors are fine in their roles, but are not given much. In the game, Mona Sax is mysterious, dangerous, elusive. In the movie she's merely ornery (though the scene where she confronts Max with a baton is pretty good). Beau Bridges brings some needed gravity to his scenes, but loses all momentum with a needless plot twist. Ludacris (brilliant in "Crash") is wasted as the kind of generic cop Harvey Keitel has been playing for the last ten years who walks around saying things like, "Who authorized this?" And club Ragnarok--pulsing with satanic menace in the game-- is simply a generic drug warehouse. And while I actually did like how they gave Jack Lupino more of a background that makes sense within the film and game mythology, the big fight was a big letdown. The movie ends quite abruptly, with half a dozen or more loose ends that simply were not tied up. Not in the "get ready for the sequel" sense, but more, "we wanted this to clock in at under an hour and forty minutes and just didn't have time" sense.

In the second half, when Max invades Ragnarok and Aesir, it livens up considerably. There's some great camerawork (the scene with Max and the sniper is really cool), and when Max finally goes gung ho and just wreaks havoc in Aesir we finally get a sense of what the entire game was like. That's what "Max Payne" should have been. Max should be tortured, relentless, merciless, soulful. It's a weird comparison, but it should have had more "Gladiator" in it. The movie does have this in drips and drabs, and that's why this C is that much more disappointing.

A few random comments (Spoiler Alert):
--The ending of the game is terrific, and would have fit here perfectly. For whatever reason they scratched it. 
--If Lena Horne isn't going to matter at the end, why introduce her in the first place? They should have either let Max go after her, or kept B.B. as the main villain.
--What the hell happened to Mona? At least in the game there's a sense of mystery (is she alive or dead?). Once the elevator door closes in the film, it just seems like they forgot about her.
--I did think they did a pretty good job keeping the fight scenes relatively realistic. No fancy wire stunts, and the bad guys do shoot straight. I liked that Max took some major damage, and the "Not Yet" moments with his wife were surprisingly effective.
--Why was the best line from the trailer "When a man loses the people he cares about the most..." not in the movie?
--Why cast Marlo from "The Wire" (Jamie Hector) as a bad guy and give him nothing to do?
--Where has Chris O'Donnell been? (actually he was one of the most effective characters)
--I understand they couldn't get all the secondary characters from the game into the movie, so I'm glad they added a few nice touches for fans (i.e. Gognitti's self-storage).
--Did Max really not notice the Valkyrie wings until he saw the letterhead? They were on the wall in the Aesir building, I mean, he's not blind...
--The end of the game works so well because Max has spent the entire game in slums and creaky mansions, so when he makes his assault on the soulless steel Aesir building it really does feel like a different world. Yet in the movie he spends two or three scenes in Aesir before the final showdown. Just a bit anticlimactic, and I would have loved to see that helicopter come down in a fiery bal, Max standing at the edge looking at the wreckage, knowing it was all over. Maybe they ran out of movie, but that would have been a killer scene.

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Blogger Graham Powell said...

I probably won't see the movie, but I loved the game. And THE FALL OF MAX PAYNE may be the best game I've ever played.

11:48 AM  
Blogger That Guy K.C. said...

a very comprehensive review and spot on. "It wasn't a good movie, but nor is it terrible. I'm disappointed because it should have been good."

it had a lot of potential and Mark Walhberg was a great casting choice, but the overall feeling was anticlimactic.

10:47 AM  
Blogger iowaporter said...

I'm confused.

1. Were the black winged creatures a) Valkyries, b) hallucinations, c) something else?
A) Since there were winged tattoos, a drug named Valkyr, a tattoo parlor explanation of the Valkyrie myth, and warriors, it makes sense that they should be Valkyrie. But, these creatures seemed to be doing the killing rather than transporting the dead. Plus, the mythological Valkyrie were white and gold - not black.
B) If we only had the subway death, I could believe that the creatures were hallucinations. But, they took an active role in the death of Owen Greene (and Natasha?).
C) So, I think they were something else. Which is stupid.

2. At the end, the creatures seemed to be going after Max - what was stopping them? a) He was on Valkyr, b) They were only hallucinations, c) The spirit of Michelle.
A) I got the impression that the creatures came as people were coming down from Valkyr. Some died, Max did not. Not a good enough explanation.
B) I don't think so. See question 1.
C) He had a vision of her when he saw the creatures. Later, he calls her an angel. I think this is it. But it doesn't tie anything up. Again, stupid.

1:40 PM  

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