Monday, December 01, 2008
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Olga Kurylenko
Director: John Moore
Runtime: 88 min.
Genre: Action, Thriller
Now, I certainly understand the excitement of the video game fans at the very idea of one of their favorite games being adapted for a movie. But Max Payne corners me into a paradox. I mean, the general idea behind the game, and the general idea behind the movie. See, I have ever played only a couple of them big games, you know, the kind which occupy a respectable size on your hard drives. And one of them was this one. It is interesting to note here that one of the men behind it was action master John Woo, and it showed in the stunts. The rest was a fallen man, burning in the fires of revenge, in an ultra-noir setting. There was crime bosses channeling out every cliché you ever knew about the Italian gangsters, and there were gorgeous women clad in skimpy leather outfits. There were Ingram Mac 10s, Berettas, pump action shotguns, sniper rifles (?). There were free junkies lying everywhere.
But most importantly, the lure, the fantasy that trapped us and had us talking was the idea that we could be doing all of that. Like our favorite actions stars, we could be Chow-Yun Fat and lock, and load, and jump and shoot and blow a bloody head off. Those junkies, they were so abundant that you could just shoot one of them in the head and have fun as their blood sprayed on the nearest wall. They were placed for no other reason. You could shoot. You could be in that movie world.
I wonder though, what is the wisdom behind making a movie out of something that actually owes its existence to movies. Max Payne wasn’t fun because it was new. It was fun because we could have that fun, instead of watching someone else shoot the bad guys. Watching the film is just like watching someone else play your video game, while you’re lying on the couch behind muttering a thousand curses. It can never be entertaining because, hey this might be news to you, but Max Payne was just a bunch of hard nuts shooting each other. Nothing else.
So, the idea for me is a bummer from the very beginning. Never mind. I went in expecting some decent action fare, maybe some high octane stuff of the explosive kind. So, everyone who’s waiting for a verdict on the film, here it is – the movie is a bummer. It is boring, dumb and THERE IS NO ACTION. The stunts are duds. There are no cool weapons. Everything is a big pile of badly shot ultra-unimaginative ultra-tedious boredom.
Now, let us start with the review of whatever that John Moore has dumped on us.
For starters, the basic plot is kinda okay, you know, of the serviceable kind. Max Payne, a detective from the homicide department of NYPD, is devastated when he gets home and finds his wife and daughter murdered. Cut to three years. Payne is a still raging in vengeance, chasing that one culprit who managed to escape from the scene of crime. He has transferred himself to the Cold Case Unit to pursue every lead there is, and he has failed. But as we ease our bums on the seat, we see Payne get the first lead. Don’t ask how. The purpose of the script is to offer a reason to go to the next scene. So Payne, walks into a snitch from old times, meets a sexy woman named Natasha (Olga Kurylenko) at the ensuing party at his house, and also meets the woman’s sister Mona (Mila Kunis). Their last name is Sax, and Natasha is really eager. She has a tattoo on her arm of a wing, which is supposed to evocate a Valkyrie. There’s a strange bald heavily tattooed man too, and he looks like someone who doesn’t need to be introduced in order for us to know that he is one of the dumb villains who is going to get shot sooner or later. His name is Sgt. Jack Lupino, and he isn’t from the police department.
What happens later is that eager Natasha tags along Payne into his apartment, and immediately throws away whatever that is she is wearing and walks bare-chested into the bed, and drapes whatever we are eager for even before we can get a glimpse. Payne walks up to her and asks her to leave. She leaves, and in the street, she is shredded to pieces by what seems like a Valkyrie. Now, into all this let me throw in some acid. Specifically, a pharmaceutical company, and an out of shape Chris O’Donnell.
Shades of The Constant Gardener? Sorta.
Now, for a bang-bang dumb stylistic actioner, this much is enough. As Godard once said – all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl. The sad part is the film seems to have no sense of how to present both of them. There’s Mila Kunis, as crime boss Mona Sax, you know, the girl of the butt-kicking kind. But she just isn’t given any chance to make her presence felt. The guns are meager. And whatever few stunts that manage to make it through to the screen are badly shot, and badly conceptualized. Director John Moore probably has never seen a John Woo film, or maybe he didn’t pay enough attention to The Matrix. He seems to have seen better filmmakers, use slow-mo to great effect, but he hasn’t learnt how or when to use them. Slow-mo choreography renders a poetic effect to an action sequence, as anybody who has watched The Killer and Face/Off would agree. But the secret to them is not to use them as a surprise punch, but to provide for them a build-up where we can hold our breath in anticipation. It is all in the build-up. Moore doesn’t seem to know that, and he merely and randomly inserts utterly laughable sequences of such kind. And they seem to be painfully slow. All Moore manages to conjure is a thousand bullets being fired from automatic weapons and Max Payne dodging them by slightly bending his neck, and then, running sideways and shooting all of them with a Beretta (got to confirm). Even the most faithful of fans would concede that to be stupid.
The pain doesn’t end there though, for Moore harbors ambitions of making a psychological thriller. He intends to dwell into the mind of Max Payne, of making the film a kinda psychedelic experience. He lends a washed out ultra-dark color to the proceedings covered in snow, and so far so good. Clap. Clap. The problem is the audience needs to feel the scenery, feel the world, and nothing in the manner in which Moore films his scenes suggest to me that he has any sufficient expertise on those counts. Consider a scene, which Moore obviously has conceptualized as his virtuoso shot of Payne’s pain. As a guy called BB recounts Payne’s tragic history, we see a flashback which is lit in ultra-bright orange sunlight, with shades of pink, where a happy Payne walks into his home. He sees a broken pane, runs up shoots a couple of guys and walks in, where his wife lay dead on the bed. He stops to the right of the bed. Now, Moore’s intention is to swirl his camera around Payne so that he can change the surrounding from the bright to the bleakest dark. He could have done it either of two ways – (i) where Payne is standing presently, or (ii) stopping Payne right in front of the bed, so that both the wife and he could be framed in one shot while there’s room for a swirl. Moore chooses neither, and what he does is ask Payne walk back to the front of the bed and stand in the position where the shot could be taken. And the whole thing is brought down so heavily by the resultant artifice that destroys it like an avalanche. As if, Moore wants to shout loud – Hey, I can take a great shot.
Now, Mark Wahlberg is a decent actor and all, but the note he strikes for Max Payne couldn’t have been more wrong. As a guy down at the Cold Case unit suggests, Payne is a black hole of human emotions. A supposed graveyard. See, this is a guy who’s chasing vengeance for three years. Wahlberg is too loud to look the part. He doesn’t look dangerous, as he claimed in an interview before the theatrical release. A decent source to seek inspiration from is Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, or Lee Marvin in Point Blank or even Daniel Craig in the two Bond films. Wahlberg is too inconsistent, and doesn’t seem to be troubled at all. This is a pay-the-house-rent performance.
I wonder if there ever will be a truly great video game film. One which actually knows its source. I am not much of a guy to talk about the medium, and don’t know much, but I know enough to understand that it is a medium capable of producing art, and inspiring art too. But it needs somebody who understands what makes it tick. Otherwise, what is the purpose?
Note: Those who have played the game will remember the scene I speak of where Payne is standing before his dead wife. And I believe there’s a chance they will also remember where the game takes the control away from us, and shows the standard video. The guys who did that knew how to take a shot. John Moore could have learned from there, at least.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 6:40 AM