Directed by John Moore
Max Payne is one of the most visually impressive movies to open this year, confirming the talent of director John Moore, a Peckinpahesque, neo-Eisenstein stylist whose grade-B material (Behind Enemy Lines, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Omen) has kept him from receiving the acclaim he deserves. In Max Payne, a big-screen adaptation of the hit video-game, Moore’s eyes are as wide as his imagination. He forces gamers to open their eyes and minds.
While utilizing abundant F/X technology, Moore has a serious concept: Burdened by the murder of his wife and child, homicide cop Payne (Mark Walhberg) yearns for retribution, uncovering a corrupt underworld that threatens mankind’s spiritual stability. Moore’s dark, apocalyptic imagery recalls Minority Report’s blue-black miasma—connecting to the personal grief of Tom Cruise’s Anderton. Wahlberg’s pitiable hero is so isolated from police routine that his desk job (filing away unsolved cases) suggests a Cold Case Bartleby. And Moore makes other significant cultural connections.
The opening panorama of Max drowning, flashing back to the start of his aggrieved mission, recalls the magnificent underwater cruciform in DePalma’s Femme Fatale. Subsequent scenes resemble the hip dystopia of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner but Moore’s compositions surpass Ridley’s out-dated tableux. Through Max’s confession, “I don’t believe in Heaven. I believe in pain, fear, death,” Moore explores genuine, contemporary anxiety.
It’s post-9/11 imagery. Max encounters vengeful angels with black wings, a city beneath darkened, fiery skies, and individuals whose aspirations toward heroism get twisted into malign confusion. It exposes the nihilistic frivolity of Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Not mere CGI fantasy wishing for Blade Runner dystopia, Moore’s compositions convey a feverish sorrow. His inclement urban skyline suggests Murnau or Arnold Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead. These phantasmagorical visions have vigor as well as dread. Looking deeply into Payne’s pessimism, Moore stirs the energy of hope, of earthly, human possibility. Imagery this powerful redeems the ghosts of urban grief and 9/11. When critics settle for frowziness in Slumdog Millionaire, Synecdoche, New York or Southland Tales, you have to wonder: do they believe in art? Moore pushes the boundaries of movie-going expectations beyond comic-book, video-game triteness. Once again his images are richer than his plots. He creates big-screen grandeur. Max Payne’s last-minute press screenings suffered the whiff of studio insecurity (always a self-fulfilling prophecy). But how Max Payne was missold is irrelevant. That it rates association with J.M.W. Turner and Bosch–and that adventurous moviegoers are spreading the word–is what really matters.