MAX PAYNE begins laudably enough. Based on the video game of the same name, it reproduces the graytone pen-and-ink world with appropriate shadows, stark lighting, and a hard-boiled protagonist that would make Sam Spade look like a cream puff. This is a man who literally crawls on broken glass without much noticing. Most of the work on that last item is accomplished by casting Mark Wahlberg in the title role of the cop on a mission while biding his time on permanent desk duty in the cold case department.
Lean, mean, and with a face set into a permanent scowl thanks to a back story that features a murdered dishy wife and equally murdered cute baby boy, he oozes trouble without moving a muscle of saying a word. The double-homicide was never solved, but its relegation to the cold case files hasn’t stopped Max from investigating. A tenuous lead takes him to a former snitch, which leads him to a slinky brunette in a short red dress, which leads him to a frame-up, which leads him to a shadowy beast with big wings and glowing eyes. Along the way there is a mystery serum to deal with, a Norse myth to consider, and a significant tattoo that seem to have been missed completely by the police assigned to cases of mysterious and particularly gruesome deaths.
Much happens along the way, but as time passes, the coherence of the action becomes less and less distinguishable. Scenes of mayhem pop up on screen for no reason having to do with furthering the plot. Characters come and go with an admirable randomness, and only Wahlberg is worth watching. His intensity, his pain, and his utter disregard for anything that gets in his way only to be brought up short by a grieving widow is a gnarly delight. The framework in which he gives this performance is, alas, equally gnarly, but considerably less delightful. Aside from a script that loses its through-story about one-third of the way through, the direction from John Moore is sublimely derivative. He has mastered the individual idioms, the slo-mo, the stark light cutting through shadows that are palpably putting up a fight, the peculiar camera angles, but relating any of that to the action at hand is hit-and-miss. Elegaic where it should be electrifying, dundering where it should be sharp, PAYNE is lovely to look at and that’s about it.
The usual cast of supporting characters are all accounted for. The avuncular ex-cop and mentor (Beau Bridges), who turned in his badge for a cushy job in private security; the dangerous brunette (Mila Kunis looking very, very serious) with tight leather pants, a grudge, and an assortment of heavy weapons; the sinister head of a large corporation (Kate Burton, who has little to do but purse her overlacquered mouth); the cop (Ludadris) in charge of investigating the murders who comes to his own conclusions; and the various denizens of the underworld, from strung-out junkies whose hallucinations might be more real than anyone credits, to a kingpin of some sort with a Caribbean accent and a nasty facial scar.
MAY PAYNE’s mystery builds to a predictable reveal, the special effects build to a predictable eruption, and yet the ending is anything but predictable. In fact, it’s not really an ending and not in the predictable sense of setting up a sequel. No, the film just stops with a final sentence that is spoken like an affirmation, but instead just hangs there in the air like the non-sequitor that it is.