Friday, October 24, 2008


“Flight of the Phoenix” director John Moore and rookie writer Beau Thorne have turned the popular third-person shooter video game “Max Payne” into a big, dumb, loud, bullet-riddled actioneer with former Calvin Klein underwear model Mark Wahlberg as the vengeance-driven anti-hero. This shallow but supercharged saga about a relentless New York City Police detective searching for the felons that murdered his wife and infant child qualifies as a straightforward, formulaic crime thriller. Despite its painfully predictable plot, “Max Payne” (** out of ****) boasts top-notch digital visual effects, an eardrum-splitting soundtrack, and atmospheric, film-noir cinematography.

Since the mysterious murders of his wife and child three years ago, former homicide detective Max Payne has confined himself to the nether regions of the New York City Police Department’s cold case unit. Max scowls in his black-leather jacket and dark slacks as he peruses old reports. He walks around loaded down with an arsenal of guns. Max believes he has found a new lead in his wife’s murder, but it turned out to be a dead end. Later, he crashes a party thrown by a former snitch. Our hero hooks up with a drop-dead gorgeous Russian honey, Natasha (Ukrainian-born actress Olga Kurylenko of “Hitman”), and they head off for his apartment. Max refuses to sleep with Natasha, so she storms out in anger. She steals Max’s wallet, too. Manhattan’s desolate, snowy streets aren’t a safe place for feisty Natasha. Gigantic winged demons descend upon her. When the NYPD find her remains the following day, they have to scoop up the pieces.

Initially, circumstantial evidence implicates Max for Natasha’s death. Ex-partner Alex Balder (Donal Logue of “Blade”) grilles him about Natasha without luck. Bad vibes alienate Alex and his ex-partner over the unsolved murders of Michelle Payne and their baby. During his investigation of Natasha’s murder, Balder spots similarities between Michelle’s dead killers and Natasha. At this point, Natasha’s gun-toting sister Mona Sax (Mila Kunis of “The Bionic Woman”) who works for the Russian mafia enters the picture. Mona wants a piece of Max whose own fortunes tumble further when he discovers Alex’s corpse in his apartment. Alex had found a link between a winged Valkyrie tattoo on Nastasha’s severed limb and those of the killers that Max gunned down when he came home that fateful day three years ago. Nevertheless, the chief culprit in Michelle’s death has managed to elude Max. Now, our hero must clear himself not only of Natasha’s murder but also Alex’s death.

Max’s wife Michelle (Marianthi Evans of “Thirteen”) had planned to blow the whistle on Aesir, a giant pharmaceutical firm where she worked, that had experimented with a powerful hallucinogen called Valkyr to turn U.S. troops into fearless fighters in the war on terror. Predictably, Aesir’s experiments backfired. Soldiers either died or mutated into subhuman winged predators resembling gargoyles. Just when everything appears to be heading south for our hero, his old police buddy BB Hensley (Beau Bridges of “Stargate Continuum”) comes to his rescue like the U.S. cavalry. Now, BB works as Aesir’s chief of security. While BB has Max’s back, our hero also has to contend with Internal Affairs investigator Jim Bravura (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges of “2 Fast 2 Furious”) who is not sure who to believe.

In Remedy Entertainment’s 2001 video game, Max was a DEA agent, not a New York cop. The Italian Mafia was Max’s enemy. Moore’s melancholy action melodrama replaces the Mafia with Aesir. Moore retains the Valkyr plot, but Mona doesn’t die in the showdown at Aesir. The video game was first to use the ultra-slow motion ‘bullet time’ effect that Andy and Larry Wachowski popularized in “The Matrix” trilogy. Further, the video game aped Asian director John Woo’s flamboyant Hong Kong action epics. However, Moore prefers unvarnished violence instead of John Woo’s balletic bloodletting shoot-outs. Imagine a stone-cold Charles Bronson revenge opera with the drug plot from the Sean Connery sci-fi thriller “Outland,” and you’ll have an idea about what to expect.

“Max Payne” amounts to a polished potboiler, with few surprises that strike you like a bolt from the blue. Thorne’s screenplay relies primarily on cliches. You’ll know before Max does who killed Michelle and their newborn. Moreover, you’ll spot the chief villain before he confesses. Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, Chris O’Donnell, and Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges co-star with Wahlberg. Wahlberg delivers a toned down performance as Max. Basically, Wahlberg sports one expression. He never laughs. He is all business. Mila Kunis looks like she could vanquish Laura Croft. Beau Bridges excels as chummy Max’s friend. Poor Chris O’Donnell gets lost in the mix.

“Max Payne” bristles with action during its 100 minute running time. The shoot-outs are loud but antiseptic. Occasionally, a combatant will exhaust their supply of ammo. Thousands of ejected shell casings chime against concrete during the gunfights. John Moore, who also helmed “Behind Enemy Lines” and “The Omen” remake, loves to show guys and gals loading their firearms, blasting away with them, and then reloading. Moore captures the hyperactive state of the Valkyr-drugged soldiers. The scenes where Valkyries hover over those who have consumed Valkyr are mildly spooky. Only once does “Max Payne” give us a glimpse of these winged hellions. The filmmakers never reveal if the Valkyries are either apparitions or the actual thing. Moore and Thorne relate two-thirds of the story in flashback. After the opening predicament, the scene shifts to ‘one week earlier.’ When the present finally catches up with the past, our hero has a date with the villain on a helipad atop a skyscraper as storm cloud gather. “Max Payne” doesn’t deviate from the B-movie action formula. This derivative, one-dimensional thriller ranks as a solid but unexceptional thriller.