Show me a movie cop turned anti-hero who doesn't care a lick about justice or self-preservation as he systematically gets rid of the bad guys, and I'll show you a Man with a Flashback.
Nine times out of 10, that flashback involves a saintly wife, and you know from the soft-focus photography and her beatific smile that she's dead-dead-dead. If the filmmakers want to amp up the stakes, they throw in an adorable toddler or a newborn. They won't survive the flashback, either.
In the consistently mediocre action-noir thriller "Max Payne," Mark Wahlberg does the stoic thing as the title character. It is not a good performance. Whether he's blowing away the bad guys, conducting a murder investigation, making coffee or throwing a PG-13 semi-nude Russian babe out of his bed because she dared to conjure up memories of the sainted dead wife, Payne just growls and glowers. And reloads.
Adapting the world created in the popular "Max Payne" video games, director John Moore (who helmed remakes of "The Omen" and "Flight of the Phoenix") gives us some stark and arresting visuals, but the New York in this movie isn't convincing as a "real" city -- or as a stylized, graphic-novel version of the city. It's always snowing -- but the snow swirls more like the aftermath of a pillow fight than actual snow. The streets of the city often seem deserted, save for the mysterious winged creatures casting shadows in alleys, or the occasional thug or innocent victim who gets torn to pieces. At other times, it just looks like a monochromatic New York.
Payne is a detective working in the bowels of the NYPD's cold case division, but the only investigation he cares about is the murder of his wife and baby at their home. (When Payne returns to the house three years later, the yellow crime-scene tape is still up, and the furniture is still there. Guess he's had trouble finding a buyer.) Payne gunned down two of the killers, but the third escaped and disappeared without a trace.
In one of many scenes that play like an imitation of similar scenarios in better thrillers, Payne crashes a party teeming with undulating supermodels and leather-clad criminal types. Among the attendees are the gorgeous Natasha (upcoming Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) and her gangsta moll sis, played by Mila Kunis, who was so winning in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" but is ludicrously miscast here. Kunis looks like a kid wearing Mommy's makeup and playing with a toy gun that's too big for her.
Speaking of ludicrous: Chris "Ludacris" Bridges plays the internal affairs cop who isn't so sure Payne is involved in a string of grisly murders. And Beau Bridges, who is not related to Chris Bridges but is related to Jeff Bridges, plays the security chief at the giant pharmaceutical company where Max's wife, Michelle, worked. And not to give away too much here, but have you ever seen a sympathetic portrait of a giant pharmaceutical company in the movies?
Ah, but let's go back to Max Payne and the exotic Natasha for a moment. She's hooked on a blue-colored liquid drug that causes hallucinations and is so addictive, one will kill just to get another taste of it. After Max throws her out of his bed, the jones-ing Natasha finds herself in a dark alley, and we see the shadows of mysterious birds, and ...
What's with these birds? There's a lot of talk about the winged, demon Valkryie of Norse mythology. Images appear on tattoos, via graffiti, on company logos, everywhere. But are the Valkryies "real" creatures that actually exist in the film's world, or hallucinations seen only by those hooked on the deadly drug?"Max Payne" seems to want it both ways. Just when you think this story is unfolding in a supernatural underworld, it returns with a thud to a semi-realistic (if hardly believable) New York.
To the very end, it's a bit unclear if Max Payne has become sort of superhero with special powers, or if he's just able to survive gunshots and extended plunges into icy water because he's really pissed about all those flashbacks involving his wife.
The slow-motion, "bullet-time" photography, the twists you can see coming a mile away, the tattooed villain with seemingly superhuman strength and a lust for blood --yawn. We've seen it all before.
How about this one: the likable sidekick who leaves the hero a message that basically says, "I've got evidence that can crack the case, meet me tonight!" What do you think happens to that sidekick?
Sometimes familiar elements create cinematic comfort food. Sometimes they just leave a sour taste.