I’ve always wondered why, when I see a great Mark Wahlberg performance in a film like “I Heart Huckabee’s” or “The Departed,” I have to remind myself all over again that the artist formerly known as Marky Mark can be a very fine screen actor. But then I see “Max Payne,” and it reminds me; I forget how good he can be because of his frequent participation in brainless bullet-fests like this new big-screen adaptation of the popular videogame.
Wahlberg gives an aggressively wooden performance as Max, a cop who has shut down his emotions since the murder of his wife and child several years earlier. (It is possible, incidentally, for an actor to play someone cut off from his feelings without glowering around stone-faced like a Golem in a black leather jacket.) Reassigned to the Cold Cases room, Max obsessively searches the files for clues to the men responsible for killing his family.
Max meets a woman with a wing tattoo on her arm; she soon turns up dead, carrying the wallet she stole from Max. Next, Max’s former partner Alex (Donal Logue) turns up a clue connecting the woman’s grisly dismemberment to the death of Max’s loved ones, but he too winds up slaughtered, in Max’s apartment, of all places.
Eventually, Max pieces together a conspiracy, but “Max Payne” spells it all out so obviously that the densest audience members will put the pieces together at least half an hour before Max finally does. (It helps, but it’s by no means required, to be familiar enough with Norse mythology — or even “Thor” comics — to know what “aesir,” “valkyrie” and “ragnarok” mean.)
Director John Moore (who gave us the hacky remake of “The Omen”) tries to make up for first-time screenwriter Beau Thorne’s moronic script by upping the art direction quotient. The film is set in a grimy and wintry — but impeccably designed — New York City, and whenever the plot lags, Moore throws in another slo-mo gun battle to rouse the audience.
Perhaps sensing that Wahlberg’s cardboard performance — with the exception of a berserker rage moment towards the end that drew hearty laughs at the press screening I attended — needed some bolstering, Moore at least filled out the cast with a strong crew of character actors. In addition to Logue, “Max Payne” also features Beau Bridges, Chris O’Donnell, Kate Burton and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges picking up a nice paycheck for a minimal amount of effort.
Poor Mila Kunis gets second billing for a role so badly sketched out that we have no idea who she’s supposed to be. As the sister of the first victim, Kunis’ Mona at one point threatens Max with, “You know what I do for a living.” Actually, until I read in the press notes that Mona is an assassin, I had no idea, because the movie never bothers to explain if she’s a gangster or merely a well-armed supermodel.
If occasional bursts of balletic violence are enough to make you forgive a movie’s multiple shortcomings, then you might have fun at “Max Payne.” Otherwise, you’ll just wind up feeling…well, look at the title.