Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Max Payne Is NOT Constantine 2!

The Good: Decent enough acting, Decent special effects, Moments of plot/concept
The Bad: Character elements seem predictable, Guts plot for franchise, Misrepresented for what it is.
The Basics: Painted as a very different type action adventure film, Max Payne suffers most of the most predictable conceits of the genre.

There is a certain element of appropriate irony in the fact that just yesterday I was speaking with a friend about previews and what a movie needs as far as a preview goes in order to be all right in my book. The Watchmen preview, for example, told me virtually nothing about the film and made it THE film I most anticipated until it came out. But there are two types of previews I loathe. The first are previews that essentially show the entire movie in the preview. Today, I saw previews for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and Rocknrolla that gave me enough information to write a review on them! Seriously. The type of preview that my friend hates are misleading previews, ones that set you up for one type of movie before showing you a completely different one.

The reason I mention that is that after weeks of going to films on the studio's dime, I decided to actually add to my ticket stub collection and go see Max Payne based on the strength of the previews. The previews show a movie that is reminiscent of Constantine (reviewed here!) with soldiers for heaven and hell lining up and doing battle. Say what I will about religious fundamentalism as a political tool, movies with good versus evil duking it out with supernatural aid from divine forces of good and evil can make for entertaining movies. It was only moments before going to the theater to watch Max Payne that I learned that this film was based upon a video game. Considering my last experience with such a film, Silent Hill, one might have thought I would have been more cautious. It's too bad I wasn't. I mention this because Max Payne falls into the latter type of rotten preview, setting the viewer up for a movie quite different from what it was. In fact, I'd swear some of the lines were put into the movie just so they could go in the trailer to paint this out to be a Constantine-type film. It, however, is not.

Max Payne, police detective for New York City's Cold Case Unit, has been thrown under the icy waters of the river and he is sinking, dying, sure to be dredged up in the spring with all the rest of the ordinary human bodies he is sinking toward. One week before he meets his untimely end, Payne is hunting criminals, a druggie named Doug who he has been led to believe has information on the last person responsible for killing his wife three years before. Obsessed with finding the one who got away, Payne has been scouring the City, but Doug comes up empty. This leads Payne to his informant's social gathering where he meets Natasha, whom he takes home. After not getting much from her, she picks his pocket, walks out and is promptly torn into dozens of pieces by who knows what.

Payne's former partner, Alex, finds Max's wallet and reunites with him, quickly finding a link between Natasha's death and the death of Michelle Payne. This discovery quickly costs him his life and Max works to avenge the death of his wife, Natasha and Alex with the help of his father's former partner, BB Hensley, who now works the security division at Aesir Pharmaceuticals. Pursued by the killers and an Internal Affairs officer named Bravura, Max works to avenge their deaths while unraveling what got them all killed, while staying alive himself.

It wasn't long into Max Payne that I had judged this an average action adventure film, a pretty firm five out of ten on the ten point scale. The closing credit sequence of big, dumb gun shots only cemented my feeling about this average flick. What was it about the last fifteen minutes? Well, they pretty much undo the prior hour and a half that preceded it.

Without ruining anything, the opening shots are leading up to Payne's drowning in icy water, so in some way the viewer has something to look forward to from the very beginning. In this sequence, we learn that Payne is just an ordinary man. Payne has no superhuman strengths, no special cunning, no advanced armaments, no powers. He's a human. Flat out. Given that, I was even willing to accept that the virtual army of professional security and paramilitary people who are set upon him all somehow manage to miss, even as he takes on several people with machine guns with only a handgun. I CAN buy into suspension of disbelief and enjoy myself. The problem, though, is that Payne gets tossed into the icy water fifteen minutes before the film ends and everything that follows is just garbage.

Max Payne suffers from a remarkably predictable plot. This is a straightforward revenge story, much like Payback (reviewed here!), save that our anti-hero is a police officer out to right a wrong. At the same time, Payne has to piece together clues as to what led to his wife's death and as far as the structure of the movie goes, I swear screenwriter Beau Thorne simply took all of the scenes from Dark City (reviewed here!) and changed the dialogue to fit this movie. All of the revelations and betrayals seem to come at virtually the identical moments as that vastly superior film (Bumstead is replaced by Mona Sax, Natasha's sister, for anyone who wants to do a comparative analysis).

In addition to being incredibly predictable, Max Payne has all of the obvious reversals one might expect from an action adventure film. The characters who seem his most loyal are, of course, the ones involved in the conspiracy and those who seem most shifty seem to stay on his good side. It's obvious and problematic in its simplicity.

As well, there is a very "video game" sensibility to the movie, though I was fine with that for most of the film. Payne runs around, gets shot at, learns a vital piece of information or gets a new gun before moving on to the next scene and that works. It even works when the massive exposition scene is given to the viewer explaining what is truly going on (it's pretty obvious by that point) and who the "big boss" is. But then, the film turns into something truly inane and guts itself of any credibility.

Actually, much of the premise is flawed from the moment that Natasha enters the film. Natasha, like a slew of the criminal underground characters is tattooed with a pair of wings on her arm (and yes, the tattoo is explained in the course of the movie). What Alex puts together is that her tattoo matches a tattoo on one of the people who killed Michelle Payne (and who Max killed as he tried to leave the house after the crime). We are meant to believe that Max Payne has risked his life and career for the past three years hunting for people related to the murder of his wife and he wouldn't have noticed the connection himself?! I can't say for sure, but one suspects that if one shot one of the people who killed his wife, he would remember what that dead guy on the floor he shot looked like, especially when the tattoo is facing plain sight. Usually, I have a problem with protagonists who are too smart, Max Payne is unbelievably dim when it comes to the events surrounding his wife's murder.

As well, more than any other film I can recall, Max Payne utilizes people off screen talking, usually in the form of shouting insults at Payne. This gets irritating by the third time it happens and it is hard to tell what the point is; the viewer gets that there are not a lot of people who like Payne!

What isn't baffling for its stupidity tends to be telegraphed well in advance. For example, Alex's wife, Christa, slaps Max when he comes to the wake and only someone who is asleep or has never seen a movie like this doesn't see it coming. Virtually every opportunity the film has to be groundbreaking and different, it mortgages. Nowhere is this more true than in the final fifteen minutes when the film sacrifices the dark noir for the potential of a franchise in the Max Payne-universe (don't believe me, stay through the credits for the scene after them!).

That said, Mark Wahlberg does fine as Payne. He is believable angry, even when he is unbelievably able to dodge bullets. Wahlberg has an intensity to him that works well for creating the steely resolve needed to believe in Payne's character. Mila Kunis and Olga Kurylenko are perfectly cast as sisters. Kunis gives a good performance as Mona, though in truth her ruthless mobster character seems less like a stretch than the next natural step from Kunis' character of Jackie on That 70's Show.

This is a pretty obvious action adventure film and the final insult in it comes in the nature of the drug that is seen from when Payne hunts Doug in the first ten minutes. Note to movie writers: The key to making great soldiers is not, in fact, making a soldier with heightened aggression (let's face it, it's not the chess club students who are being most hunted by recruiters), it's making one who can aim a gun and hit their mark more frequently. Sadly, Max Payne's writers miss that sensible concept and gut the principle along with virtually everything else in the movie.

For other works featuring Mila Kunis, please check out my reviews of:
Friends With Benefits
Black Swan
Family Guy Presents: It's A Trap
Date Night
Forgetting Sarah Marshall


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Index Page!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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