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Movie Review

In brutal 'Max Payne,' villains and filmmakers miss mark

Mark Wahlberg plays the title character, a New York City detective searching for the killer of his wife and baby. Mark Wahlberg plays the title character, a New York City detective searching for the killer of his wife and baby. (Michael gibson)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 17, 2008
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One hesitates to use a term like symbolism in relation to "Max Payne." But mustn't it mean something that no one in the movie who's armed (which is just about everyone) seems able to hit the target? "Max Payne" is based on a video game of the same name, and the only character any good at playing is Max himself.

Mark Walhberg sulks relentlessly in the title role, a miserable New York City detective, and he brings extra-strength solemnity to the part. On the one hand: Who killed Max's wife and baby? On the other: Who allowed him to stop dressing like a cop and start dressing like a bouncer at a strip club in Saugus? Black on black on black on black? Dude, we get it - you're tough, you're depressed, you're tired of checking IDs.

Max spends his movie trying to find out who murdered his family while being a suspect in a different murder. But it's hard for us to be as committed to justice as he is when the search turns so chaotically brutal so often. We are, however, handed an odd grab bag of actors to sort through. Chris "Ludacris" Bridges snarls as the detective following Max. Kate Burton sits in the back of a Town Car and looks guilty. Poor Chris O'Donnell looks foolish while trying to look guilty. Jamie Hector, the actor who was so good as Marlo, the ambitiously cold-blooded kingpin on "The Wire," tries a voodoo accent. And Beau Bridges, as a security chief, is perfectly unembarrassed even as he appears to be one missed eyebrow trim away from becoming a giant owl.

But mostly the movie orbits around Wahlberg. Perhaps he took the part for its fitness value. One sequence requires him to run, shoot, and leap through the air while shooting. Another requires him to leap then run and shoot. He's all business here, refusing the advances of a sexed-up junkie and ignoring the junkie's spiky, vampy sister (Mila Kunis), who enters his life after the junkie turns up dead.

This is not a movie that has great passion for pleasures of the flesh. Its sexiest scenes involve bullets cutting through the air in the slowest motion possible and the men who cock their shotguns, extravagantly leaping backward, to fire them. Restaging mayhem from old John Woo movies is all director John Moore cares to do. In his last outing, a contemptible remake of "The Omen," Moore whipped fake hellhounds into a frenzy and sent Julia Stiles plummeting to her death. This time he gets to show demons with 30-foot wingspans and orchestrate a shootout in a pharmaceuticals office. (Watch the Post-Its fly!)

Eventually, we hear news of a drug that makes our troops invincible (yes, that story line again), but the conspiracy goes nowhere. The filmmakers aim their cynicism more at us than at any government or drug company. They seem far more excited about the giant graphically designed gun that stars in the closing credits. It gets a much better close-up than Wahlberg does.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

Max Payne

Directed by: John Moore

Written by: Beau Thorne

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Kate Burton, Chris O'Donnell, and Beau Bridges

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 97 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (violence including intense shooting sequences, drug content, some sexuality, and brief strong language)

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