Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward—and a good time.
Cultural infamy: It’s tough to say whether Max Payne, the 2008 movie based on the 2001 videogame, actually has any infamy at all. I guess it shows how out of touch I am (or outside the target market), but this movie made $100 million and I don’t know a single person (other than The A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias) who’s even seen it. When I mentioned that I was going to watch it on purpose, the response from most people around this office—a fairly pop-culture-savvy bunch—was “Which movie was that again?” Still, it’s got this generation’s most amazingly leaden actor, Mark Wahlberg, in the lead, so that’s got to be good for something, right? Right?
The reviews were savage. Max Payne currently has an 18 on Rotten Tomatoes and a 31 on Metacritic, with the highest rating (from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) calling it “a dumb film.” But critics seem to hate action movies, so it’s a better idea to trust the reader rating on Metacritic… which is a lowly 5.3. One commenter, Jared J, had some positive thoughts, though: “I did not mind spending the $27.95 for the Unrated extended cut eddition and that came with a digital version, people these days love movies that suck and hate movies that are amazing (like this.)” Not a good sign. But Crank 2, people! Remember Crank 2! Action can be great!
Curiosity factor: There are several factors. Judging from the previews and what little talk surrounded Max Payne, I expected it to look pretty great. A lot of people compared it to The Matrix, mostly for the supposed use of “bullet time.” Even if the plot was total shit—and it’s based on a videogame, so I figured chances were good that it would be—there should still be well-choreographed bullets and bloodshed. Also: Mark Wahlberg. I find him fascinating to watch, because he’s clearly a pretty terrible actor who has happened to land a few amazing roles (Boogie Nights, I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings) that somehow made him look like a genius. (Secret: Play really dumb/confused characters, and you’re all set.) Here, watch Andy Samberg’s impression, and Wahlberg’s semi-humorless response:
The viewing experience: Action movies can be stupid, and that’s okay. Action movies can be completely implausible, and that’s generally a plus. One thing action movies should never, ever be is boring, and a good chunk of Max Payne is just interminably so. So much time is spent trying to build backstory—for Payne, played by Wahlberg, and for the villains, an evil pharmaceutical company—that it fails to kick ass multiple times. Long stretches of desert road with only Mark Wahlberg as a conversation partner—that isn’t a road trip you want to take.
Anyway, the story: Max Payne is a cop in the cold-case unit, where he’s been working since his wife and infant son were brutally murdered. How do we know this? Because as one faceless cop says to another by way of introduction: “His wife and kid were murdered. They never found the guy. That’s his story.” But that isn’t the end of the story, of course. If it was, this movie would be called The Punisher (the Thomas Jane version), and it might actually be palatable. Nope, in this story, we get mythical winged beasts, evil corporations, a double-crossing Beau Bridges (playing a character called BB), and Daphne from Heroes. (Thankfully just for a second on that last one.)
So Max Payne is out for vengeance, searching for the guy who killed his family. In voiceover, at the very beginning, we come to learn Max’s philosophy: “I don’t believe in heaven. I believe in pain.” Though his desk job is totally boring, Max is out at night scouring the totally set-designed underworld in search of clues—like a videogame, each clue leads him to exactly the right next step. First he meets super-sexy Olga Kurylenko, who wants to bed him almost immediately. The filmmakers behind Max Payne deserve more credit than those behind Quantum Of Solace, who let this terrible actress live for an entire movie. Here, she’s attacked by some sort of winged beast and killed (while carrying Max’s stolen wallet) almost immediately. This sets into motion a conflict and eventual partnership between the dead girl’s sister (Mila Kunis) and Payne. Allow me to paraphrase their relationship: “You killed my sister, I’m going to kill you!” “No I didn’t!” “Okay, let’s be partners!” Then she promptly disappears for a good chunk of the movie.
At some point in here, Donal Logue shows up and is quickly murdered.
The mystery deepens when Max discovers that one of his wife’s killers (whom he killed at the scene) had the same tattoo as dead Olga. This leads Payne to the most helpful tattoo artist in the entire world, who explains to the audience what a valkyrie is. Pay attention, because it’ll help you be underwhelmed by the lack of resolution later. This might be the clearest scene in the whole movie:
So we’re in for a supernatural thriller, right? I mean, this giant winged beast has already attacked a bunch of people, and we now know that it’s a valkyrie. We’ve seen it pull a tripping junkie out a window and send him crashing to the ground. Yet somewhere in here we’ve also come to know that this is most assuredly not a supernatural thriller, and that all of the fantasy elements are drug-induced. The evil pharmaceutical company was trying to manufacture “super soldiers” (yawn, X-Files did it already, etc. etc.) and that their experiments worked less than 1 percent of the time—the drug (called “valkyr,” because somehow they knew that it was going to turn people into psychotic giant mythical bird-beasts) actually just drives people crazy. So crazy that they might even break into Mark Wahlberg’s house and kill his wife to keep her from exposing the secrets that she learned while working at the drug company! (Yes, all of that information is delivered in one giant rush, just like that.)
And just when I’m about to die of that special combination of boredom and confusion—you know the one, where you don’t know what’s happening, but you don’t actually care—here comes a sepia-toned flashback to the murder of Max Payne’s family, along with a little bit of so-bad-it’s-good fun. That’s right: The greatest scene in Max Payne is a sepia flashback to Mark Wahlberg discovering his wife’s bloody corpse in their house. The look on his face says, “I’m confused. My wife has been murdered. I don’t really know what to think right now. Am I hungry? Should I cry out in pain or anger? Is the camera rolling yet?” Here it is:
Did I mention Ludacris is in this movie? He’s mostly here to show up and sorta save the day, playing the Internal Affairs agent who initially thinks Max Payne is the bad guy—then discovers he’s not, and decides to help out. Somebody tells Ludacris during a ludicrous flashback, “He was maybe 10 minutes too late.” Aww.
And I haven’t even mentioned the “bad guy” yet, because his job is to basically stand around in the shadows and look evil. His real name is Amaury Nolasco, but I only know him as Sucre from Prison Break, so I’m just going to call him Sucre. His most awesome moment in the movie is when he appears in a promotional video for the drug that never worked but was somehow manufactured in large quantities, and is readily available in seedy clubs all over the snowy city. Eventually he dies, but really, it’s like he never lived at all.
At some point, Robin from Batman & Robin shows up, and it took me 10 minutes to remember his real name (Chris O’Donnell) and five seconds to realize I couldn’t remember him in anything else. He plays the morally conflicted pharmaceutical-company guy who sympathizes with Max Payne even as Max Payne is beating the holy hell out of him. He happens to have an envelope full of pertinent evidence right on his desk, which is always nice.
And then it’s a tired, tired action scene in which faceless dudes in flak jackets try to kill the unkillable Max Payne. There’s a pretty cool shot in which he’s running through an office while windows explode around him, but it’s hardly worth the 60 minutes leading up to it.
So with the valkryie/super-soldier Sucre dead—killed by Mila Kunis, who shows up after a long absence—Payne realizes that his dad’s old friend Beau Bridges is really the bad guy. Then Bridges explains the whole stupid plot, and his henchman gets the most amazing line in the entire movie. He’s a stand-in for the audience when he says simply, “Okay, enough! Enough of this shit!” Amen, brother. Let’s enjoy it together:
Wahlberg gets dumped into an icy river by Bridges, who conveniently plants a couple of vials of the superdrug on him, so the cops think he’s some kind of junkie. When he emerges from the depths, on the verge of freezing to death, he comes to the realization that—instead of calling an ambulance and being treated for hypothermia—he needs to actually take the drug, so he can feel no pain. When he does, holy shit. Second-best moment of the movie. He roars like a lion and the sky turns to blazing fire. This is not a joke:
So this drug either actually summons valkryie demons, or it causes everybody who takes it to have the same hallucination. Either way, that’s stupid. (And yes, I know it’s supposed to be the latter, but man… Bad.) The drug also makes him impervious to pain, which doesn’t explain why being literally riddled with bullets doesn’t at least physically knock him over. But that’s splitting hairs; there are plenty more things to complain about with Max Payne than implausibility. Like the fact that it’s an action movie with about five minutes of decent action in it.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Very, very little. Watching Mark Wahlberg act is generally fun, and a couple of the action sequences—especially one in which Wahlberg falls backward while shooting a shotgun in slow motion—are decent. But everything else just drags and drags. I’m gonna go with 3 percent.