Max Payne begins with the enticing look of a modern-day film noir. None of the movie’s feeble, yellow, flickering light sources can fully puncture the overwhelming darkness. Drifting snowflakes alternating with pouring rain offer the only relief; even daylight comes out gray. Into this world comes our “noir” hero: Max Payne (Wahlberg), a grim loner of a police detective, dressed all in black and obsessed with finding the murderer of his wife and baby. Max moves well within this world, and director John Moore (The Omen remake) seems to find just the right kind of tone, half Sin City and half Dark City.
Then the plot kicks in. In his nocturnal travels, Max meets a strange array of characters, including Mona Sax (Kunis), who looks like a dominatrix and may or may not be a Russian assassin (the movie doesn’t really say). BB Hensley (Beau Bridges) is his cop father’s former partner, and now works at the chemical company where Max’s wife once worked. And Jim Bravura (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) is an internal-affairs agent who may or may not be on Max’s side. Max doesn’t talk much, so his relationships with all these folks are rather sketchy. It all comes down to a kind of super drug that has been let loose on the streets, some Constantine-like visual effects and the presence of an evil soldier (Amaury Nolasco) who keeps leering at people from darkened rooftops.
Based on a shoot-’em-up video game, Max Payne isn’t as action-packed as one might expect, and the little action we get is cleaner and more exciting than usual. And the movie’s excellent design and mood almost—almost—outweigh the stupid story. But as the filmmakers struggle with increasing frenzy to wrap it up, the strands become more and more unraveled. And thus it goes the way of every other movie based on a video game: It starts with a character, and maybe an idea for a look, but after that, it has nothing. It’s aimed at fans of the video game, who will find that actively guiding their hero at home is preferable to passively watching this disposable movie.