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The UnPopular Opinion: Max Payne

08.22.2012

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THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!

**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****

Time is an interesting factor to add in to the mix of movie judgement.  Much of the... time, time can slowly dampen my enjoyment of a movie. There are quite a few films that soured in my own estimation after time ate away the gloss and revealed the barren beast beneath - several of them have actually already been covered previously by this column, and since I agree with the opinion there would be little point in writing up my own rendition.  But then there are those, well, times when time can actually do a few favors for a movie.  It can strip away the clouds of nostalgia and reveal that what you thought was an abomination on the face of cinema is, in fact, not.  And yes, I am willing to state publicly that this happened with me and MAX PAYNE.

Upon another viewing, I will say that the movie is not the shitstorm that I've often heard it made out to be.  Nor is it the bland, hollow cinematic void I've also heard it made out to be.  My own opinion had originally leaned towards that of the latter, but now that I am older and (in theory) wiser and removed from the apathy of that first viewing inspired by an attachment to the source material I find it to be an entertaining movie with a few fresh thematic and cinematic ideas of its own to boot.

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And this. Olga Kurylenko is definitely the way to go for any and all your actress needs.

Let's get this out of the way now: there is a gaping Mark Wahlberg-sized hole in the middle of this movie.  He may have been trying to go for the 'exhausted hard-boiled cop" air, but he comes off more as "dead" at worst and "walking mannequin" at best.  Much has been made of his performance, or lack thereof, so I won't go too much into it here.  Suffice it to say, we all know Wahlberg has done immeasurably better work than MAX PAYNE.  Thankfully, his lackluster efforts here don't actually really detract from the rest of the movie. 

Which is a strange thing to say, because in most cases an energetically absent lead performance would make it difficult to connect to that character's journey and thereby the events of the story.  But the world of MAX PAYNE is so particular, the plot and aesthetic so stylized, that the movie survives rather well through the strength of the world as its main character rather than Payne himself.  Payne may be meant to be our hook into the story and its world, but in a strange and (no doubt unintended) subversion the story and its world end up being our hook into him.  And considering his rather extraordinary journey, it's actually not a bad way for the movie to be.

In past columns I've spoken negatively about the method of style-over-substance, understanding its appeal to some but firmly finding that it held little appeal for me.  And being style-over-substance is yet another of the many complaints leveled at MAX PAYNE.  Call me crazy (which you very well might), but I think it actually works in this case.  The style-over-substance nature of this storytelling, as opposed to just being "cool for the sake being cool" as it is with most examples of the label, instead refers to an extremely specific and affective visual sense that works as metaphor to tell a story far better than the text as is ever could.  The style overshadows the substance, because there is instead substance to be found within the style.

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"Remember when you were a kid and you'd hold your breath when you run past the graveyard? Just leave that man alone."

There's a message to MAX PAYNE, and an acute observation or two about the natures of greed, power, despair, and those monsters that masquerade as humans.  There's even a through-line meditation on the theme of how grief can deconstruct a person's soul, something viscerally realized through the hallucinations of certain characters and the violence Max inflicts on both himself and others.  This is not to say that MAX PAYNE is the TREE OF LIFE of action movies/video game adaptations - this is more to say that I find there to be substance buried in the style, rather than separate from it.

Insofar as pure storytelling goes MAX PAYNE is also structured in an engaging fashion, with Max's mystique and the questions surrounding how he became the way he is (both in terms of his soul and floating nearly dead in a river) solidly built up throughout the movie.  The screenwriter deserves a small medal for translating the original video game, itself an entertaining hodge-podge of homage without a great deal of weight beyond its relatively novel use of true tragedy, into something new with an identity all its own that also works insofar as traditional movie structure goes.  The action delivers in terms of being entertaining, the design and art aesthetic is pretty f***ing cool, and the movie is a pleasure to look at with some thematic meat beneath.  Is the final product a bit muddled in relation to what it could have been? Perhaps.  But there's a lot that they got right with this one, and I'm glad to have found that subsequent viewings don't diminish my enjoyment of this flick in any way.

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"There's an army of bodies under this river - criminals, people who ran out of time, out of friends...I could feel the dead down there, just below my feet, reaching up to welcome me as one of their own. It was an easy mistake to make."

Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to ajstepenberg@joblo.com, spell it out below, slap it up on my wall in Movie Fan Central, or send me a private message via Movie Fan Central. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you wish, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!

Extra Tidbit: Mark Wahlberg didn't play the video games prior to filming. Perhaps things might have turned out a bit differently performance-wise if he had.
Source: JoBlo.com

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