Possibly the best thing about Max Payne is the lack of a colon in its title. Given that most moviegoers who don’t play video games don’t know Max Payne from Maxwell Smart, the makers of this adaptation of the popular third-person shooter could easily have chosen an informative elaboration such as Max Payne: Detective on the Dark Side or Max Payne: The Atmosphere-Laden Adventure Begins. Instead, they went for a nice, economical two syllables — and a compact running time.
Other than that, not much is memorable about Max Payne. Uninspired action movies based on video games aren’t any worse than other uninspired action movies, but they’re more likely to leave viewers with a sense of missing the good stuff, because the elements that make games exciting and innovative don’t translate well to cinema.
In this case, what’s left is a bullet-riddled noir story with lots of art direction but none of the too-clever-for-its-own-good dialogue or baroque characterizations we expect from the genre. Mark Wahlberg plays the title character, an NYPD detective who was busted down to filing cold cases after his wife and newborn were murdered, leaving him with attitude problems and a perma-scowl. On the track of his wife’s third killer, he meets a gorgeous, drug-addicted Russian (model and future Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), who tries to seduce him for no apparent reason. Rejected, she stumbles out of his apartment in the flurrying snow and is torn limb from limb by demons on flying horses, or so it appears. The supernatural steeds pop up periodically as Max joins forces with the dead girl’s sister (Mila Kunis from “That ’70s Show,” not so plausible as a spike-heeled professional killer) and follows a trail of corpses with winged tattoos to a mysterious drug called Valkyr.
The drug is produced by Aesir Pharmaceuticals, the company for which Payne’s wife worked, and a club called Ragna Rock is also involved. The Valkyries, as a minor character helpfully points out, are mythological winged warrior women who bore the souls of the fiercest Vikings off to Valhalla. In short, the movie keeps Norse mythology nerds distracted. (The Aesir are a divine dynasty; Ragnarok is the apocalypse.) Meanwhile, director John Moore and his cinematographer keep their vision of New York dark and perpetually precipitating.
This noir city with echoes of Blade Runner is the background for lots and lots of shooting. In their time, the Max Payne games were lauded for their imitation of John Woo’s action cinema; the “bullet time” effect allowed players to slow down the shoot-outs so they could dodge attacks, Matrix-style. Here, all it means is that crucial moments in the bloodbath are stretched out for our delectation, but Moore doesn’t give us anything cool to see while time creeps by. After Timur Bekmambetov’s crystal-clear, surreal slowed-down action sequences in Wanted, Moore’s just seem muddy.
Watching Wahlberg isn’t much fun, either. “I know pain. I know fear. I know death,” he monotones in the beginning, and the character continues in that vein: a walking pity party who only comes alive when he’s firing his gun. Various other more or less notable players — Beau Bridges, Chris O’Donnell, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, even Nelly Furtado — show up but fail to make an impact. The only one who leaves us wanting more is Amaury Nolasco, as an Army sergeant seen giving a taped testimonial to the benefits of the Valkyr drug. (Big Pharma, always a convenient culprit, originally developed it to make U.S. soldiers feel invincible.) The Norse were a warrior culture par excellence, and when Nolasco smugly says he hasn’t experienced any side effects with his enhanced aggression, he evokes the dark side of the superhero mythos.
But the story is about Max Payne, who’s considerably less interesting. In the end, the mythological allusions fold in on themselves and turn out to be just set dressing for a goth melodrama version of Death Wish — one that doesn’t end so much as just stops. Here’s hoping a sequel called Max Payne 2: Living on Borrowed Bullet Time isn’t in the works.