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Max Payne

Fox // Unrated // January 20, 2009
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 22, 2009 | E-mail the Author
Y'know, my
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first question when I heard they were hammering out a feature film version of, nearly decade-old video game wasn't why. I just wanted to know if it'd stick closely enough to the game that I'd get to see Max Payne trot across tightropes of blood as he chases down the distant screams of a baby. No dice, though. Sorry.

Fresh off one of the year's other Razzies front-runners, Mark Wahlberg stars as everyone's favorite sullen, pointy-haired detective. Max has been trudging around the Big Apple's Cold Case unit for a few years now, watching a bunch of files collect dust while trying to track down who's responsible for the murder of his wife and baby daughter. It's an obsession that cost Max a promising career and most of what's left of his humanity, but the leads he's been chasing these days finally seem to be bringing him closer to the questions that have been tormenting him for so long. While chatting up an old snitch, a too-foxy-for-words Russian model type (Olga Kurylenko...swoon) throws herself all over Max. He shoves her off -- and no, sorry...suspension of disbelief only goes so far -- but not before she snatches his wallet. Natasha is still clutching Max's driver's license when she's savagely murdered, and...yeah, this is where the shitstorm really starts. Internal affairs (headed up by, um, Ludacris) thinks he's gotta be involved with this stack of dead bodies that keeps piling up. A gun-totin' femme fatale type named Mona (Mila Kunis) pins her sister's murder on Mr. Payne and is out for blood herself. "But wait!", I'm sure you're asking. "Why do so many of these carved-up corpses have tattoos of valkyrie wings on 'em? What's with that fluourescent blue drug all the cool kids are chugging down these days? Hey, Max's wife worked at a pharmaceutical company when she was less dead...could that have anything to do with all this?" Oh, the answers to all of these questions -- and more -- await in this pretty much universally panned video game flick.

Sure, the skeleton of the story is lifted straight out of the Big Book of Stock Action Clich├ęs, with only a hell of a sense of style and...y'know, hallucinatory demons from the dark, dank depths of Hell setting Max Payne apart from a couple hundred thousand other flicks. I mean, once all of the characters have been introduced, there's not exactly any lingering doubt who's going to betray who, which of the guys smacking Max around early on are going to be standing by his side once the counter ticks down to the climax, what the connective tissue is between the grisly murder of his family and this superdrug flooding the streets... So, yeah. The story's pretty bland, and despite the occasional "...the hell?" plot point chucked in there, the pieces all fit together pretty much exactly the way you'd bank on it happening. The pacing's kind of off-kilter too. Max Payne never really figures out how to bridge its brutal, blood-spattered shootouts, and without a meaty story or vaguely compelling characters, everything in between can really drag. The movie rushes once it limps near the end, though. Whatever.

In the disc's
Big trouble for Moose and Squirrel.
extras, director John Moore admits that most of the characters in the flick are cardboard cutouts -- that Max is supposed to be the only one to fire up the audience -- but Mark Wahlberg is kinda limp and lifeless this time around. He's up to the physicality of the role, but Wahlberg just doesn't really...y'know, radiate badass all that much, and Max is kind of boring when he's not gunning the holy hell out of someone. I'll give the flick bonus points for casting a bunch of gorgeous women -- especially Bond gal Olga Kurylenko and Mila Kunis -- but between a drab cast and the stilted, awkward dialogue, it can be tough going. I mean, lines like "What have you done, Max? What has Max Payne done...except for bring everyone who ever cared for him" that's drenched in syrupy strings...? Pain pain pain. This is why you don't cast Nelly Furtado in your movie. I would say stick to singing,, don't do that either.

On the upside...? This is one unbelievably stylish flick. Virtually every last frame -- and there are more than 144,000 of 'em -- could've made for a poster. John Moore has caught a lot of flak as a director over the years, but from the noir-inspired cinematography to some unreal slow-mo shootouts, there's no question that he knows what to do with a camera. Overdirected...? Sure, but the movie's underwritten and underacted, so that kinda/sorta/no-not-really evens things out a bit. Plus...y'know, impossibly gorgeous women, a snippet of drug-induced sapphic action, point blank shotgun blasts, blowing an office tower half to hell and sending a twenty-ton chunk of brick and mortar careening down on top of a cop car, blasting a guy to death with a snub-nose pistol still in its ankle holster, a junkie snatched in a soaring demon's talons and dropped flat onto a Cadillac, shooting up a subway bathroom with a pistol that can blast shotgun shells, Max singlehandedly taking on an entire SWAT team, a blood-spattered crib if you're into that sorta thing... That's enough of a distraction for me, at least.

John Moore
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went on record a few months back that Max Payne would be beefed up with a gamer-centric cut of the movie once the DVD and Blu-ray disc rolled around. "It's a little slower and a little more atmospheric. There are some rougher edges on it, but it's not going to be a bloodfest. I want this to be the Max Payne that I set out to shoot. It's not that I wanted to release one version in the theaters and make a cheap buck by following up with a blood-drenched DVD version. The movie you see in the theaters will be an intense experience and the movie you see on DVD will be as intense an experience with some extra sensibilities for people who really adore the game." While this Blu-ray disc does serve up both the PG-13 theatrical cut and an unrated version of the movie, slower...? More atmospheric...? Not so much.

The differences in runtime between the two versions clock in right at three minutes in total, although there aren't actually any extra scenes. The theatrical cut ditches pretty much every last trace of blood, even when drug-addled badniks are gunned down or hacked apart with a machete. (Actually, the machete whacking was my favorite -- the unrated version cuts to a nearby wall that's splattered with the red stuff, and the theatrical version just cuts to that wall. No blood or anything...just a few seconds staring at a blank wall. Thrilling!) A couple of torture sequences are extended along with being a hell of a lot more gruesome, Max's flashback to walking in on the bloodied remains of his family is longer and more graphic, and a junkie's fingernails crack off as he's clutched in the talons of a winged demon. There are also marginally different versions of a hallucination in a subway, a couple of bloodier sieges on the bad guys' corporate headquarters, a little dollop of girl-on-girl action, the decapitated corpse of a druggie is reflected in a mirror instead of his whole body being pretty much intact, a little extra dialogue... There's really no reason to sit through the theatrical cut at all, but it's pretty tough to picture this unrated version as being the gamer-oriented flick Moore enthuses about.

So...yeah. Max Payne. Think Hard Boiled filtered through '40s film noir, only toss in a tattoo artist who keeps leatherbound tomes of Norse mythology within arm's reach at all times and a bunch of hellspawned gargoyles flapping around. Max Payne isn't good in the sense of being...y'know, good, but it's able to coast by enough on its really spectacular visual style and some pretty intense shootouts to make for a solid rental, at least. Rent It.

Oh, and stick around after the end credits for a quick minute-and-a-half epilogue.

I know
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I've belted out "stylish" seven or eight times in this review so far, but just to really hammer it home, Max Payne is defined by its dazzling visual style, and...yeah, it's the only thing that halfway redeems the flick, really. It kind of follows that a movie this intensely focused on its visuals will have a reference quality Blu-ray disc lurking in the wings, and yup, Max Payne does look phenomenal, ranking up there as one of the most astonishingly crisp and detailed live-action movies I've caught on this -- or any other -- format. The cinematography takes its cues from classic film noir, so contrast is expectedly rock solid, bolstered by deep, inky black levels. The photography is so consistently clean that I was honestly kind of surprised to see traditional film cameras scattered around the extras; I convinced myself that an image this perfect had to have been shot purely on high definition video. The texture of the grain is tight and wholly unintrusive, even in its darkest and most dimly-lit moments, only rearing its head in the stylized flashbacks to the murder of Max's family.

There's absolutely no trace of digital noise reduction either, and I really couldn't spot any flaws at all: no edge enhancement, no sign of filtering or excessive processing, no compression artifacting, and since the scope image on this Blu-ray disc has been culled directly from a digital intermediate, there are no flecks of dust or visible wear in the source. Some gearheads may grouse at me slinging the 'reference quality' label at a movie this dark and desaturated, but I've torn through hundreds of Blu-ray discs over the past couple of years, and very, very few have impressed me as much as Max Payne has. No matter what you might happen to think about the movie, there's no denying that this is one of the most jaw-dropping high definition releases out there right now.

Max Payne uses seamless branching to accommodate the two cuts of the movie on this disc, and both versions have been encoded with AVC.

Max Payne's 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack deserves a nod as reference quality too. This hyperaggressive lossless track is a sonic assault from every direction: shadowy demons soaring from one channel to the next, sprays of gunfire decimating everything in their path, the howling winds of a New York snowstorm helping to establish the movie's somber atmosphere, a couple hundred pounds of C4 crumbling a mammoth office tower into's immersive and unrelenting. The subwoofer doesn't just reinforce the action; the low-end is practically a concussive force in its own right, from the meaty thuds of each punch to cracks of gunfire that feel like a slug to the gut. The film's dialogue is balanced flawlessly, consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout. Really, there's a distinctness and clarity to every last element in the mix, worlds removed from anything DVD could hope to churn out. If Max Payne's startling visual style ranks as the best thing about the movie, its immersive, violent sound design is a close second. This is the sort of disc you grab off the shelf to show off what your home theater rig can really do.

Like most of Fox's day-and-date releases, Max Payne supports D-Box bass shaker rigs. Traditional Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks have also been piled on in Spanish and French, and the long list of subtitles includes streams in English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Korean.

  • Pieces (59 min.): Max Payne chucks the usual stack of featurettes out the driver's side window in favor of a pretty unique two-part documentary. It's a mix of candid behind-the-scenes footage -- and it's on one hand pretty playful and on the other honest enough to show what a trainwreck parts of the shoot really were -- alongside interviews about both the allure and pitfalls of working in the film industry in general. The fact that it frequently veers so far away from Max Payne could turn off some people, but I kind of appreciate the fact that it's not just another stock making-of piece. Longtime fans of Entourage also might dig the fact that Mark Walhberg's real-life gaggle of friends take center stage for so much of it too. There's a better, more tightly edited doc in here, but Pieces aims for something different than the norm and is worth setting aside an hour to give a look.

  • BonusView: The
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    theatrical cut of Max Payne serves up two picture-in-picture features, although this footage can also be viewed on its own if you don't have a PiP-capable Blu-ray deck or just don't feel all that burning a desire to sift through it in context. (Fox's implementation of this sort of material really ought to be the gold standard from here on out.) Some of this same material is featured throughout "Pieces", although it's generally extended here.

    "Walkthroughs and Cheats: Making Max Payne" runs for 53 minutes and is anchored around behind-the-scenes footage, although there are also brief interviews, looks at conceptual art and previs work, and passes through different stages of a few of the film's visual effects. Pretty much every key sequence is covered in some depth, and "Walkthroughs and Cheats" also gives the supporting cast a chance to chime in. Some of the highlights include the intricate tattoos plastered across Amaury Nolasco, a very detailed runthrough the arsenal of weaponry in the film, a peek at Olga Kurylenko in a cape (?), and Mila Kunis on everything from researching on gaming blogs to the eighteen hojillion iterations of Mona's hair and wardrobe.

    "Behind the Scenes with Director John Moore" is a pretty sterile heading, sure, but the title of the disc's other picture-in-picture feature is truth in advertising, serving up a half hour of footage of Moore on the set. He has a hell of a sense of humor and is just an enormous presence in front of the camera, which follows Moore as he scatters rubber body parts across a dingy back alley, sniffs a bar of faux-C4, spells out to his crew the paths of several streams of bullets, and spins a story about Maserati's family car.

  • Audio Commentary: John Moore pops up again for Max Payne's commentary track, and production designer Daniel Dorrance and visual effects supervisor Everett Burrell pile into the recording both with him. Moore dials himself down a little compared to the other extras, but it's still his personality that makes this track worth a listen. Considering how heavily Max Payne leans on its visual style, it kinda follows that the commentary skews in that direction too, noting how the flick opts for more of a timeless backdrop and how subtle the use of CG frequently is. Some other random notes worth pointing out including Moore casting his cardiologist in every movie he makes, Customs flipping out after sifting through a digital camera fat-packed with shots of guns and coke, and shooting a slow-motion
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    shotgun blast at a thousand frames per second.

  • Michelle Payne (HD; 14 min.): The disc's lone high-def extra is an animated graphic novel that's supposed to flesh out some of the backstory behind Max Payne's wife before she was slaughtered. There's really nothing in this stiff, stilted story that wasn't covered well enough in the movie, though, and rotting, cadaverous looking characters awkwardly nudged around the frame like Colorforms all look too ridiculous to take seriously. The flipside of the case pitches this extra as one of Max Payne's biggest selling points, and maybe it is to really frothing-at-the-mouth fans of the game. To me, though...? Waste of time.

  • Trailers: Trailers for Mirrors and Babylon A.D. have also been tacked on, but for whatever reason, both are in standard definition only. None of Max Payne's trailers or teasers managed to make their way to this Blu-ray disc.

  • Digital Copy: A second disc includes a digital copy of the movie for use on home computers and portable media devices.

The Final Word
Think John Woo with a half-empty bottle of absinthe in one hand and a couple of Warner's film noir box sets stacked in the other. Max Payne is stylish as hell, aiming for a mix of noir and a blood-spattered ballet of violence, but it comes up short in...well, pretty much every other possible way, saddled with a lousy script, a drab cast, and a scattershot plot sopped in Norse mythology and drug-addled CGI gargoyles. I kinda liked Max Payne even though I'm honor-bound as a semi-pretentious online movie reviewer to trash it, but everything I dug about the flick goes back to its hyperstylish visuals and intense shootouts. If that's all you're really keeping your fingers crossed for, Max Payne is worth a rental, especially with a Blu-ray package this slick. Rent It.
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