Review: ‘Max Payne’ Delivers Maximum Frustration

By  · Published on October 17th, 2008

It’s not minimum Payne, it’s Maximum Payne. That’s how director John Moore describes his latest film, which stars Mark Wahlberg as a New York City detective who is left emotionally crippled and vengeful after the murder of his wife and small child. And speaking of Wahlberg, this is the character that he jokingly said could kick Batman’s ass. Having now seen the film, I can say with absolute certainty that Batman has nothing to worry about — because while Max Payne was intended to give us maximum badass, all we get is maximum frustration.

We are driven to frustration by the arduous nature of the film, which spends the bulk of its 100 minute run time showing us how Max Payne went from top cop to emo-wanderer. We get it, his wife and child were brutally murdered and it has destroyed his entire world, turning him into a vengeful shell of a man that once was. What we don’t get is an explanation as to why we need to constantly be reminded of how it happened — to constantly be taken back to Max Payne standing over the dead bodies of his family. After a while, when combined with the sluggish pace of the search for the killers, it all becomes rather tedious. To make matters worse, the first three quarters of this film sees almost no action, save for a mostly irrelevant scene where Max shoots up a bathroom in order to scare the truth out of some common junkies. Besides some witty tough guy talk and a dude meeting his end in an always fun subway train-related way, it is nothing more than a throw away scene.

On top of the fact that the film fails to deliver on the promise of being ‘maximum’ anything, it is also one of the most poorly written films that has been committed to celluloid this year. At the heart of the story is a drug that causes people to hallucinate and believe that they are being attacked by the crazy winged demons that we’ve seen in the film’s trailers. This is a part of the story that actually makes sense, believe it or not. What doesn’t make sense is how in this video game adaptation, every single bad guy is set on the ‘novice’ skill level. We are talking about everything from a sniper who shoots at Payne from 10 feet away, only to miss 5 feet wide right; to a muscular menace, played by Transformers’ Amaury Nolasco, who reminds me of that crazy fighter in the circle of fire from the commercials — while he seems like a formidable threat at first, he is ultimately exposed as just another bad guy cliché — you know, the one that is really tough looking, but puts up almost no fight when the chips are on the table.

In addition to this village idiot approach to villains, the film is wrought with awkward, B-movie level dialog — and the performances don’t help, either. Mark Wahlberg isn’t bad, but much like Timothy Olyphant in Hitman, his performance is mostly characterized by his ability to be quiet and look angry. Mila Kunis just looks out of place as Mona Sax, a Russian mob boss who helps Max after her sister, played by the perpetually half-naked Olga Kurylenko, is murdered by the same folks that offed Payne’s family. While I’m sure Kunis had all sorts of fun acting like a badass and carrying around a gun the whole time, her character is just there — and by the time she becomes integral to the story, the audience is likely to have already lost interest.

I suppose the thing that is most frustrating about Max Payne is how far it fell below my expectations. I had high hopes for the film that went far beyond the comments made by its director and star, hopes that were built on a series of great clips shown at Comic-Con and on the web since. For all intents and purposes, this should have been a video game adaptation that stood head and shoulders above the rest, but instead it gets filed right in there with the others — not the worst by any means, but certainly not good enough to be a game changer.

What almost saves it is the fact that it explodes with a burst of kick-ass action and gun play in the final 20 minutes. All of the sudden, Max Payne goes from sulking emo-cop to Rambo on Red Bull — and in those final scenes, director John Moore shows us two things: that he is committed to over-using slow motion and bullet time, and that when it comes to filming a big-time shootout, he’s got some skills. As well, it is worth noting that Moore gave the film a very interesting aesthetic, which is ambitious. Unfortunately, it is too little too late, and all the positives achieved by Moore’s visual efforts are overshadowed by a sub par script and characters that just never click with the audience. As I wrote in my notebook during the screening, Max Payne delivered on its promise of badass for approximately 20 minutes; the rest of the film, however, had me wanting to go out and punch a toddler out of frustration.

The Upside: 15-20 minutes of action at the very end that prove that director John Moore had more to show us.

The Downside: It takes so long to get to the ‘badass’ parts that it will drive anyone mad — especially anyone who had high hopes for this film. Also, a bad script is more obvious when delivered with such bad performances.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)