For a movie based on a video game, there's a curious dearth of action in Max Payne. I know we've often complained that these movies were ALL action and NO substance, but this one has gone in the opposite direction. Well, except there's not really any substance, either. So it went in the opposite direction, but only part of the way. It stopped in the middle and is now a one-dimensional detective noir rather than an exciting shoot-em-up.
By the way, I have never played the Max Payne video game. Does this disqualify me from reviewing the movie? Then stop reading now! Cuz I'm totally about to review the hell out of it anyway.
Mark Wahlberg takes a break from his talking-to-animals duties to play the title character, a New York City police detective whose wife and baby were murdered three years ago by three assailants, one of whom escaped and was never identified. (The other two are dead and thus unhelpful.) Max now works in the cold case bureau of the department, basically pushing papers around all day so he can focus his efforts on his real objective: finding the guy who killed his family.
Following a lead, he winds up in the company of a sultry Russian named, like all sultry Russians, Natasha (Olga Kurylenko), whose sister, Mona (Mila Kunis), is a villain of some kind. (Assassin? Gangster? At one point Mona reminds Max, "You know what I do for a living," and I thought, "Well, that makes one of us.") Natasha winds up dead with Max's wallet nearby, making him a suspect. The subsequent death of a police officer in Max's apartment makes things look even worse.
At this point, rather than cooperating with the Internal Affairs detective (played by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and explaining everything he knows, Max becomes surly and combative, acting exactly like a guilty person would even though he genuinely has nothing to hide.
Connected to all this is a new street drug called Valkyr, a serum that comes in little vials, and when you drink it you get terrifying hallucinations that frequently lead to your death. (Yeah, I don't understand the appeal either.) The drug is affiliated somehow with Aesir Pharmaceuticals, a massive company that Max's late wife worked for, where the head of security, BB Hensley (Beau Bridges), is an ex-cop and a friend of Max's.
The conspiracies and secrets run even wider than I have suggested, and perhaps you are wondering where, in all this, is there a place for Max to run around shooting people? And that is a good question! Director John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines, the Omen remake) stages it like a classic film noir, particularly in the visuals: lots of shadows, slits of light coming through window shades, smoke and steam everywhere -- cinematographer Jonathan Sela has photographed everything quite gorgeously. Occasional bursts of red remind us that there was recently a movie called Sin City, too. Max, a hard-boiled detective falsely accused of murder who has to find the real doer to clear his own name, is an archetype. There are femmes fatales. You get the idea.
All of this would be a lot more useful if the story surrounding it were better, and if it made more sense. A Valkyr-addicted maniac named Lupino (Amaury Nolasco) is allegedly relevant to the matters at hand, but why, exactly, is he doing what he's doing? What DOES Mona do for a living -- and, for that matter, why is she even in the film? The movie over-explains some things ("The one you're looking for is Lupino!" someone says, whereupon the movie gives us three brief flashbacks of Lupino, in case we forgot who that was), then leaves a lot of other things piled up like a train wreck.
In the last 10 minutes, after numerous lurching plot twists and unsatisfactory explanations, you finally get the gunfights and vengeance you came for, including some of that super-slow-motion stuff that I understand is quite popular in the video games that the kids play on their iPhones or their Googles or wherever. But until then, it's merely a lukewarm police procedural, with very little of the adventure that the video game presumably provides.