In a different world, Max Payne would be a solid contender for the worst videogame to film adaptation in movie history—taking its place right alongside Super Mario Bros. and Mortal Kombat II as the main exhibits in the case that Hollywood simply doesn't understand gaming. However, as long as the Antichrist (known more commonly by his human name, Uwe Boll) continues to churn out films like Alone in the Dark, Max Payne will just have to be content with the title of "not very good" as opposed to "out and out awful".
Payne, starring an angry and mopey Mark Wahlberg as the title character, is a film that I really wanted to like. It's beautifully shot (it's got a gorgeous neo-noir color palette working in it), it has some decent action scenes (although I think the games did a better job of integrating the John Woo influence), and it feels like the people involved cared about the end product to at least some degree. This makes it all the more disappointing that the end result is a film that feels a bit like Constantine part 2 (which was another film I wanted to love because I've dug the Hellblazer comics for years).
Wahlberg's Max is a cop whose wife and child have been murdered. He's sort of damaged goods now and has been relegated to working the cold case files by day and trying to find his family's killers in his free time. He finds a promising lead, but she winds up dead. He meets the lead's sister, assassin Mona Sax (Mila Kunis), and the two begin working to unravel the mystery. Said mystery comes to involve a drug that makes the user almost superhuman and causes them hallucinate violently—seeing angels and demon-like creatures in the world around them.
At least that's what I think it was about. A lot of Max Payne doesn't make much sense because the film has been so shoddily edited and no one seems to care much about the narrative anyway. The story in the film serves only one real purpose: to get us from point A to the next action set-piece. It's lazy screenwriting. The source material wasn't exactly "deep" in terms of characterization or motivation, but at least it felt genuine. This is a film that often treats its characters and story as an afterthought, instead more interested in focusing on striking images and bloody violence.
The performances are all over the place. Wahlberg gives it a go, but he looks like he knows he's in a movie that isn't very good from the early stages. Fortunately, the role doesn't call for him to do much more than glower. Mila Kunis does the sexy assassin thing well, but she doesn't get enough screen time to have any sort of effect on the story. Ludacris is surprisingly good as the Internal Affairs officer looking into Max's past, while Beau Bridges is so terrible that it seems almost like a joke.
The real star of the film is the visuals created by director John Moore. Max Payne certainly looks like the world explored in the two games. It's desaturated in terms of color, grimy and dark, and with enough rain and snow that you start to wonder why anyone would choose to live in a city with such awful weather. Add in the sequences where we see this world through the eyes of people using the movie's super-drug and the visuals ratchet up another notch. This is where the film reminds me so much of Constantine—that was another movie that spent a lot of time creating a unique visual look but at the cost of character and narrative.
I've been writing about film and games for over a decade now. I love both mediums passionately, so I'm not one of those critics who looks down on gaming as inferior to cinema or thinks that "good videogame movie" is an oxymoron. The problem is that Hollywood continues to buy up game properties and turn them into films with no real clue as to what makes a good videogame story work. When you try to force-fit game narratives into the confines of three-act structure and Egri's rules of dramatic writing, it doesn't seem to work. Critics are then quick to say that the reason games fail as films is because the stories aren't good and that it's more about the action than the plot. There's a grain of truth in this when it comes to some titles, but there have been games that feature stories that work as well (if not better) than things Hollywood churns out on a weekly basis (Bioshock is more interesting narratively than almost anything I've seen from mainstream Hollywood in the past several years. I could write a list of games I've played over the past few years where I kept playing only for the story—and not the gameplay itself. Sega's Yakuza springs immediately to mind).
None of this is to give Max Payne a free pass—it's not a good movie—but to merely point out that we're unlikely to get good movies based on games until Hollywood figures out how to treat the material in a serious fashion. It can be done—look at how comic movies have become a box office juggernaut. A decade or so ago, people felt there'd never be great comic movies because the stories weren't good enough. That wasn't the problem—the problem was that there weren't writers who understood comics well enough to bring out the universal elements of those stories. Now there are—and games will have that same transformation. Unfortunately, Max Payne isn't the beginning of the renaissance—instead, it's merely business as usual.