Perhaps the greatest tragedy that can befall a film is also one of the most simple mistakes that can be made during the filmmaking process- the failure to meet potential. The inability to live up to the promise of a story or an idea. And arguably in no other film is this idea exemplified more than in director John Moore's 2008 release "Max Payne." Because not only did the film fail to meet its potential... it failed to meet its potential after that potential had already been realized in the far superior video-game on which it is loosely based. The original 2001 game "Max Payne" was a pioneering and groundbreaking release that made keen use of cinematic storytelling, top-notch voice talent and Hollywood-level screen writing to realize a dark and grim tale of vengeance and crime. It was almost a movie in itself already- it merely needed to be translated from one medium to another.
Unfortunately, an army of producers and one of the most inept filmmakers in modern cinema saw it differently, and decided that rather than honor the original, they would go out of their way to change it. And it resulted in something that while occasionally aesthetically entertaining to watch, ultimately feels vapid and empty... merely coasting by with the most basic and bland of clichés, and only occasionally giving us brief glimpses of the brilliance seen in the source material. In essence, a truly unique modern noir tale became a generic studio hack-job. But what else can we expect from the same director who single-handedly destroyed the "Die Hard" franchise?
Max Payne (Mark Whalberg) is a man lost- a cold-case police detective haunted by the murder of his wife and infant child. Obsessed with the case, he tracks down criminals in an attempt to solve the mystery of why they were killed and who is responsible. Following various leads and tips, Max eventually begins to piece together a conspiracy that might have something to do with the death of his family... a conspiracy involving a mysterious hallucinogenic drug and an equally mysterious young woman named Mona (Mila Kunis) who might be the key to everything...
To give some praise where it is deserved, there are indeed a few moments peppered in here and there that work, in addition to a few solid turns from a talented cast. Whalberg and Kunis are both more than adequate in their roles and do the parts as much justice as the script allows. In the hands of a better writer and a better director, they could have been perfect. I also really enjoyed Donal Logue and Beau Bridges in smaller supporting roles. The color palette is a good translation of the source material and what little action there is is typically well-executed, even if Moore fumbles in trying to replicate the game's trademark "bullet time" action set- pieces. As a result, I do think that audiences unfamiliar with the source material might be able to get some surface-level thrills from the proceedings. But that's all it is... surface-level thrills without proper substance behind them. You could say that it almost feels like a true "Max Payne" tale... almost...
Unfortunately, you can't help but feel completely apathetic towards the movie as a whole because it seems that Moore and writer Beau Thorne fundamentally misunderstand the appeal of the franchise and completely fail at capturing the magic of those now-classic games. Like many filmmakers who work on game-to-film adaptations, Moore, Thorne and the various producers behind the film seem utterly convinced that they can do better than the original, and make nonstop and completely superfluous changes to the story that convolutes it instead of enhancing it. When you take something as fresh and unique as the original "Max Payne" and try to "make it better" by changing it, it looses its freshness and uniqueness. When you change something that's already pretty much perfect, the only way to go is down, which is exactly what happens.
So fresh ideas are replaced by generic tropes. Interesting characters are replaced by bland archetypes. And fascinating twists and turns are replaced by dull and overused cliché. It makes the film so much less than it has the potential to be. Not only does it do no justice to the original work, but it also ends up making for a much weaker film even when judged on its own merit. Change, change, change... and all for no reason. Why should we as an audience care about a film if its clear that the filmmakers have no respect whatsoever for the source material or their audience? Combine that with atrociously grating dialog, generally bland visuals outside of the eye-popping action, a confused and unfocused narrative structure and a tamed-down PG-13 rating that feels like it's holding the film back, and you have a recipe for mediocrity.
"Max Payne" might not objectively be a terrible film. But it is most certainly a sorely disappointing one. A symbol of not only Hollywood's continued misunderstanding and mishandling of video-game properties, but also of the terrible sin of failed potential. And so, I give it a below-average 4 out of 10.