Is a Max Payne Fan Film Better Than the 2008 movie?

The Max Payne movie failed to capture the essence of the videogame - but a new fan film is having a go...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The original Max Payne video game feels like the result of its developers spending a weekend bingeing on The Matrix and various John Woo movies, while taking the occasional break to read some Raymond Chandler novels. It was a stylish, fluid third-person shooter that made heavy use of slow motion and bullet time, with the story being told through graphic novel panels. Max himself was an insanely cool lead character, and the game went on to become a major hit. It spawned two further games – released in 2003 and 2011 respectively – and remains a cult favorite to this day.

It also spawned – like pretty much every successful video game – a movie adaptation in 2008. Mark Wahlberg took on the title role, with Mila Kunis playing Max’s love interest Mona. While the movie made a modest profit, it did little to impress critics, with the harshest judgements coming from the fan base itself.

The movie is essentially forgotten now and is on the same video game movie scrapheap that also houses Hitman: Agent 47 and Tekken. On the flipside of the coin is Max Payne: Retribution, a 2017 fan-produced short that manages to recreate the unique feel of the game for a fraction of the cost. For the sake of an experiment, let’s contrast the two adaptations, and see if passion and creativity are any match for a Hollywood budget and a major star.

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Max Payne: Retribution (2017)

This short doesn’t adapt any particular storyline from the series, and instead feels like a mash-up between the original game and its sequel. The story involves Max – still eternally grieving for his murdered family – trying to save Mona Sax from Jack Lupino (played by director Leroy Kincaide), a drug kingpin with a nasty Devil worshipping hobby. It’s a contained story that gradually builds to an epic gunfight in a drug warehouse.

Fan films are often well-meaning and filled with passion, but are let down by a lack of budget, acting talent, or filmmaking ability. It’s one thing to get actors and dress them up like video game characters, but it’s another thing entirely to breathe life into a film. Thankfully, Max Payne: Retribution manages to bypass a lot of those potential pitfalls, coming across as a sincere tribute to the franchise.

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A love for the material is evident in every frame, from the countless Easter eggs (Max drinking Kong whiskey, “Address Unknown” playing on the television, etc) to the faithful recreation of the main characters. Actor Joan James Muixi certainly has the look of old school Max and does a good job with the stylized dialogue. Sadly, he lacks the gruff authority of original voice actor James McCaffrey, but then again replicating McCaffrey’s distinct sound is near impossible anyway. The attention to detail of the short is impressive, especially given Retribution’s modest £1500 budget. The budgetary stretch marks are visible in certain sets or effects shots, but what the crew was able to achieve on that amount is impressive. It has a slick cinematic look, from a moody early scene of Max washing his face while bathed in neon to the warehouse finale. This sequence manages to cram in all the classic elements of the game too – slo-mo, dual wielding, and even a spot of bullet time, and it’s a nicely choreographed shootout.

Like many fan films, it’s not flawless. Some line readings feel off and a few scenes play out a little long, but Retribution remains a stylish ode that understands what made the series so interesting in the first place. That, and the moment Max picks up another handgun and prepares to dive, should be enough to produce a smirk in even the most jaded fan.  

Max Payne (2008)

There are certain characters and franchises that are fundamentally aimed at adults, and trying to tone them down for a lower rating usually ends in disaster. Think Live Free or Die Hard or Alien vs. PredatorMax Payne is a game defined by a high bodycount and bloodshed, so the decision to make it a PG-13 movie was already a sign it was walking down the wrong path.

Before I start beating the film with a stick, let’s start with some positives. The film looks gorgeous. The snowy New York where the story is set is a beautiful wasteland. Director John Moore may not be a master storyteller but he’s got a great eye, and clearly had a blast shooting this neo-noir flick. The Valkyrie creatures are an odd inclusion, but they again make for a striking visual, which Moore milks whenever possible. The action scenes – when they arrive – are fun, with Max’s drugged out rampage in the finale injecting the glum thriller with a bit of adrenaline. 

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That’s pretty much it, though. Many of the film’s issues run deep. A big one is Mark Wahlberg and his characterization of Max. In the game he may be moody, but he also has a glib sense of humor, and his inner monologue made him endearing. Here he’s a mopey, humorless git, and Wahlberg plays him with that singular note throughout. Kunis is completely miscast too, utterly failing to come across as a badass assassin. The rest of the cast are a mixed bag, but nobody here is doing their best work.  

The game is almost non-stop action, while the movie is a meandering thriller for the most part. It often feels padded out with useless scenes, like Mona visiting a crime boss who has no bearing on the plot or a bizarre cameo by singer Nelly Furtado. There’s a remarkable lack of action in the first half too, and while it’s not half bad when it arrives, the PG-13 rating sands off the harsher edges.

The video game movie genre has a long history of disappointing fans, and while Max Payne is far from the worst, it was still a major letdown. The pervading feeling is nobody really cared about the material. Wahlberg admitted he didn’t play the game and the movie makes bizarre changes to the source. It doesn’t even feature a scene where Max dives through the air with a Beretta in each hand, which is just about the biggest sin of all.

I remember a friend – who is a big Max Payne fan – summarizing it best, “Remember that bit in the game where Max walks around for an hour not shooting anyone? Of course not. That would be boring.”

The Winner: Max Payne: Retribution

It may lack a little spit and polish, but the makers of Max Payne: Retribution took a tiny budget and a lot of passion and funnelled it into a stylish adaptation. Fans should definitely seek it out, and it might help ease the payneful (sorry) gap between games. There’s a rumor that the makers of Retribution are in talks with Max Payne publisher Take-Two Interactive about developing a TV series based on the short.

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Based on the good work in Retribution, that could be something very fun indeed.

Max Payne: Retribution will be available to view on the official YouTube page from June 24th.