Payne-ful? No. Boring? Yes.

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2008

'Max Payne'

Twentieth Century Fox

1 hour, 40 minutes

Mark Wahlberg is not having a particularly good year, creatively, anyway. First, his chance to star in M. Night Shyamalan's comeback horror flick ended up with far scarier reviews than anything on-screen. Worse, most of the reviews singled poor Marky Mark out for particular drubbing. And if that weren't enough, his very next film is a pathetic pseudo-noir based on the shoot-'em up video game, "Max Payne." About the only good news for Wahlberg is that Saturday Night Live spoofed him recently talking to animals. Those are pretty meager glad tidings, but when you've had a run like Mark's, you'll take what you can get.

"Max Payne" is the story of a grim, and grimacing, detective whose obsession with finding the murderers of his wife and child has driven him to be even more grim. This does wonders for one's popularity within the police department. Max, played with a look of perpetual annoyance by the aforementioned Wahlberg, is supposedly a formidable fellow. Characters talk about him in hushed whispers -- almost as though there was something supernatural about him. "That man is lookin' for somethin' God wants to stay hidden," one particularly reverent criminal intones. "You don' wanna be nowhere near him when Judgement Day comes."

Ooooooh. When a rookie cop asks the inevitable question, "What's with that guy?" the answer comes back with due gravitas. "You remember when you were a kid and you held your breath when you passed a cemetary? You best leave that man alone."

Hmmmm. Sounds tough. Add to this supernatural dialogue the fact that the preview is populated by flying demons, and you might well imagine that "Max Payne" is a supernatural thriller akin to "Constantine" or "The Crow."

If only. I hate to be a spoiler, but, as this film is little more than a 90-minute C-level shoot-'em up, I don't think you'll be too disappointed if I reveal that the winged beasties in question are drug-fueled hallucinations, brought on by a high with a little too much kick. Instead of a man who scares even the darkest of demons, Max Payne turns out to be little more than a depressed and disgruntled cop with an itchy trigger finger and a bad attitude.

Though the special effects are pretty good, they're kind of a cheat considering that, in reality, they mean nothing at all. The acting ranges from middling to poor, though I was surprised at the level of names in this movie. Not big names, to be sure, but names nonetheless. Beau Bridges, Chris O'Donnell, Ludacris, Nelly Furtado, and Donal Logue round out the cast. They're all fine, I guess, but there was very little to grab onto in this whole gloomy affair. That, and it was hard to see. You could tell the director thought he was building a mood, but for all the shadows and lonely pools of light, the entire film just seemed dim. Predictable, plodding, and overly moody, "Max" was less of a pain to sit through than a bore.

Since we're on the subject of cop-dramas, I thought this week's American Film Institute top 100 selections should fit the mold. Luckily, there's almost nothing on the list that resembles "Max Payne," but here are a couple of distant cousins.

"The French Connection" is one of those movies I'd always heard about, but somehow had never seen. I was only 2 when it came out in 1971, and by the time I was sneak-peeking the R-rated movies from my parents video-disk collection, this gritty New York story had a little too much dialogue and not enough gun-fighting to draw my attention. Gene Hackman plays the brutal detective Popeye Doyle, a role that must have seemed shocking at the time, but feels somewhat dated today. After all, we watch cops beat confessions out of suspects every week on TV now, but in the early '70s, people were more used to seeing New York's Finest portrayed as just that. I'll admit I was a little disappointed that this legendary film, father of the modern cop drama, didn't have more kick, but I have to remember that I watched it with a different perspective than was intended. The ending is fairly shocking, however, and allows a remarkably young looking Hackman to plumb the depths of the brilliant actor he would become.

Much better is "In the Heat of the Night," another film that I was familiar with by reputation if not by actual experience. Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a black cop stuck in the deep south dealing with an unsolved murder on the one hand, and a racist, hostile police force on the other. In the middle stands Rod Steiger as Police Chief Bill Gillespie. Poitier is brilliant in this racially-charged twisty tale, but Steiger steals the show as a man at war with his own instincts, trying to save his job by solving a crime that could tear the community apart. This film, released in 1967 at the height of the period of civil unrest in this country, is a brilliant snapshot of the times, while also managing to be a crackling good mystery. There are plenty of good police procedurals out there, but this is a film not to be missed.

Grades: "Max Payne," C-; "The French Connection," B+; "In the Heat of the Night," A+.

"Max Payne" is rated PG-13 for lots of gunplay, language, and gruesome violence that is hinted at more than shown. "The French Connection" is rated R for violence, language, and partial nudity. "In the Heat of the Night" is unrated.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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