Stylishly made, armed to the teeth and ludicrous in the extreme, “Max Payne” sends its eponymous antihero into New York’s underbelly on a deranged quest for revenge. Along the way, director John Moore unleashes every visual trick in his arsenal, the flashiest being a hail of bullets that whoosh across the screen in delirious slow-motion — no doubt to distract auds from an increasingly risible story involving tattooed corpses, Norse mythology, demonic hallucinations and perhaps the weirdest cinematic reference yet to the “war on terror.” Fans of the popular vidgame franchise and Mark Wahlberg should ensure brawny B.O. and ancillary returns.
As reconceived for the screen by first-time scribe Beau Thorne, New York detective Max Payne bears some temperamental similarities to the gifted sniper Wahlberg played in last year’s “Shooter.” Like Bob Lee Swagger, Max is a laconic, disgruntled badass who’s handy with a gun, lives in self-imposed exile (he’s transferred himself to the NYPD’s cold-cases department) and winds up on the run, accused of a murder he didn’t commit.
Make that two murders. The first victim is a voluptuous Russian babe, Natasha (Olga Kurylenko), whose unique body art provides a clue as to who, or what, was responsible for her brutal dismemberment. The second victim is the cop (Donal Logue) who was assigned to the still-unsolved murders of Max’s wife, Michelle (Marianthi Evans, seen in flashback), and their young child.
Determined to avenge his family, Max teams up with Natasha’s less trashy, more trigger-happy sister, Mona Sax (Mila Kunis, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) and seeks sympathetic advice from ex-cop BB Hensley (Beau Bridges), now a top exec at Aesir, the major pharmaceutical company where Michelle used to work. It’s here that “Max Payne” goes quite literally to Hell, as the disillusioned detective realizes a link between Aesir and the pushers of a powerfully addictive drug that induces fiery visions of winged, Valkyrie-like demons. And you thought “The Constant Gardener” was scary.
Before it derails with a climax that seems to have borrowed a few scenes from the “The Incredible Hulk,” “Max Payne” strives valiantly to imbue its hoary vigilante-thriller cliches and police-procedural tropes with authentic grit and emotion. But a fleeting mention of the Iraq War amounts to little more than a pseudo-topical feint (proof that the U.S.-Mideast conflict is officially ripe for action-pic exploitation), and scenes meant to emotionally anchor the drama are dashed off with perfunctory haste. Not helping matters is Wahlberg’s guarded performance, which (somewhat surprisingly, given the subtle shadings of personality the actor displayed in “Shooter”) fails to make Max Payne the character much of an improvement on Max Payne the avatar.
The 2001 videogame and its 2003 sequel were notable for their innovative third-person-shooter interface — heavily influenced by the balletic action on display in “The Matrix” and the films of John Woo — which allowed players to slow down time while firing and dodging bullets. Fans will be duly impressed with how the pic incorporates the gimmick, though needless to say, it’s not nearly as much fun as actually playing the game.
Moore, whose strong compositional eye enlivened such otherwise routine action fare as “Flight of the Phoenix” and “Behind Enemy Lines,” artfully blends vidgame and film-noir aesthetics (dramatic overhead camera angles, intense use of chiaroscuro, bursts of red onscreen to emphasize the impact of the violence), while editor Dan Zimmerman’s measured rhythms yield a more coherent, less frenzied work than one might expect from the source material.
Daniel T. Dorrance’s urban-grunge production design and Jonathan Sela’s shadowy widescreen lensing of various Toronto locations add up to a reasonably convincing and atmospheric simulacrum of the game’s interactive environment before the visual overload of the final scenes. Post-credits sequence promises the obligatory unrequested sequel.