There’s a problem that nobody goes out of their way to see a three star film. That is, nobody goes out of their way to see a three star film unless…well, either there’s nothing else on that’s immediately preferable, the intrigue of said film is too tempting to resist, or there’s cash to spare and the entertainment at home (latest console release, PC MMO, moody partner) are really starting to grate. This is a problem for a hell of a lot of films, but films of games are arguably the most obviously affected. Why? Enter Max Payne.
Books can make classic films. Think Lord of The Rings, Fight Club, Jurassic Park. That fruitful relationship occasionally beaches when plots are changed slightly, but often the directors are fans enough to bring literary worlds to life. Films of games, on the other hand – and Max Payne specifically – tend to hit the rocks more than tidal waves for the simple two reasons that (a) the two art-forms generally compete for your same space and time, and (b) film is, in a sense, more restrictive and dictatorial in the experience you receive. Not a bad thing, but it depends on the content.
See, in theory, Max Payne could make a good flick. You could imagine it simmering somewhere between Sin City visuals, Dirty Harry morals and the relish of an unsolved, murdered-family plot line quite nicely. The film should have a style of its own, being based upon a game unique enough to sway a gaming industry into buying 3D Realms’ oft-forgotten classic. Instead, what it does make is an average at best flick, which at points I found myself considering less important than my disappearing popcorn. And for a film reviewer that’s hardly inspiring.
Worse, in spite of the two and wholly unsatisfactory physical law-defying gun ‘fights’ inspired by the game (itself inspired by film), in spite of leggy and gun-toting brunettes (big fan here), and in spite of a decent display from a cast hardly given the most enthralling, or cohesive storyline (incidentally, a little unfaithful to the game), nothing really sticks with you other than a ‘nice’ semi-circular story line.
What will annoy fans of the game – including me – are the same things that’ll confuse those none the wiser. The ‘flashback’ scene, the crux of the story and the crux of the character of Max, is agonisingly misplaced, and is best described by 3D Realms Scott Miller when he said recently, “There are several fundamental story flaws… in the film that have me shaking my head in bewilderment.” Me too. Part of the reason the game was great was that you knew/had witnessed the reason behind Max’s actions early on and so wanted to help him tear the town up because of it. In the film, you neither know the true horror of the story until late in the day (or even much care by that point), nor have the ability to help him on his path. Instead you sit there infuriatingly lacking a mouse or controller to liven things up.
Seriously though, Miller is not alone in the flashback debacle, but the fundamental flaw for me comes down to the fact that 20th Century Fox ever considered adapting the game in the first place. Yes, it survives the transformation, but merely passably. Yes, sometimes the spartan and snowy cityscape feels like Max Payne the game; sometimes the low-lifes and backstabbing underworld convey a pinch of the gutter you experience in Max Payne the game; and sometimes Mark Wahlberg who – deserving credit for an honest and dutiful performance along with a diligent supporting crew – has the face for Max and even reminds you of the character he’s supposed to be. Yet that character, the plot, the style, the environment, the ‘edgy’ hellish feel of New York City, and even the frown on Wahlberg’s face, are all much better in pixels and polygons.
I suppose what’s most surprising in all of this though, is that despite his aforementioned comments, 3D Realms’ CEO is optimistic about a sequel. Not me; I’m not even optimistic enough about the first to give it the honour of the three-star problems I opened with. Especially when, for the price of a cinema ticket, you could actually get the longer, original and best version of Max Payne’s world on a smaller screen.