Don't go to great pains for 'Max'

Mythological, video-game-based action/adventure film drags Wahlberg down with unoriginal script and soupy visuals * 1/2 ( 1 1/2 STARS)

October 17, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Mark Wahlberg has been crying uncle about the Dada-esque Saturday Night Live routine "Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals." But SNL star Andy Samberg's imitation of Marky Mark as Barky Bark (conversing to "the Donkey Bunch") is vastly more amusing than Wahlberg's latest action vehicle.

This gifted, rough-edged star has no one to blame except himself for appearing in Max Payne. He may not talk to animals here, but he does growl like a wounded bear and stare open-mouthed at soldier angels. Although they're supposed to be the Valkyrie of Norse lore, they look like clay dolls baked in a kiln and animated by cartoonists who are all thumbs.

The latest video game-inspired sci-fi/fantasy adventure to die a slow death on the screen (even at the relatively modest running time of one hour and 40 minutes), Max Payne is less a filmed story than a series of noxious vapors swirling around Wahlberg's Payne. Once a high-powered New York lawman, he's now the chief librarian of his precinct's cold-case files. The most frigid case of all is the one that changed his life: the murder of his wife and infant child (which occurred before the movie starts). He killed two culprits at the scene. For three years, on his own time, he's been trying to find the one who got away.

Wahlberg favors two separate personas these days: He's either the terse loner gunman of this film or the hyper-verbal hip-shooter of The Departed. When will some filmmaker have the savvy to put these two together? As one or the other, Wahlberg can turn monotonous or exhausting.

Playing a wounded soul with a tragic past like Max may appeal to the adolescent romantic in Wahlberg. But smart, original stars from Bogart to Paul Newman looked for roles that would set off melancholy with eloquence and charm. Wahlberg gets no such help from the filmmakers behind Max Payne. Counterpoint isn't part of their vocabulary.

The widower's quest encompasses the usual comic-book detritus - several dead and mutilated bodies, shadowy hallucinations, a mysterious blue serum. And the supporting characters are all the usual suspects, including Payne's aggrieved former partner (Donal Logue), the ex-cop who was a pal of Payne's father and is now a fat and happy corporate security chief (Beau Bridges), and the good bad girl (Mila Kunis) who wants to get even for the coldblooded slaughter of her sister.

An ominous pharmaceutical company named Aeris lends some graphic-novel-style gravitas to the proceedings. And before the movie ends we get the obligatory pseudo-serious connection to the dark side of current events, in this case collateral damage from the war on terror. Too bad the movie develops little momentum or live atmosphere. The ambience here is 100 percent ersatz.

The director, John Moore, and the screenwriter, Beau Thorne, gamble that their swirl of mythic references and soupy visual environments will suck the audience into a pulpy vortex. But the most original images come to the screen stillborn, even with snow that swirls like flakes of white-hot coal. The outlandish pictures neither exercise your brain nor extend your sympathies.

Moore and Thorne fail to make the plot hum like a video-game shoot-'em-up. Why does it take Payne 36 months to investigate the weird winged tattoo on one of his wife's killers, or note its similarities to a company logo he must have seen every day of his married life? You can forgive the slow-mo bullet effects since by now they're endemic to the genre. What kills Max Payne is that the characters think and feel in slow motion. Half the time, mentally, they're just running in place.

Max Payne

(20th Century Fox) Starring Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis. Directed by John Moore. Rated PG-13 for violence, drug content and brief strong language. Time 100 minutes.

online Watch a preview and see more photos from Max Payne at baltimoresun.com/movies

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