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Max Payne: The first great videogame movie?

This article is taken from Total Film Issue 145 which goes on sale 5 August in the UK. To see more Total Film content visit TotalFilm.com

Last time out, Mark Wahlberg was fighting a mighty wind (The Happening). He didn’t look too comfortable… There was much brow-furrowing and air-gazing and short-sleeve shirt wearing…For Max Payne, Wahlberg is ditching the elemental for the supernatural and, in a hangar-sized suite at London’s Mandarin Oriental, he’s comically at ease: slumped back on a sofa in trainers and worryingly tracksuit-like trousers.

He’s short and sweet but built like a boxer: all carved bulk and knotted sinew, with a fighter’s air of serene self-belief. After a 45-day stint in jail back in the ’80s, Wahlberg toughed himself back into contention via hip hop, workout video production and an autobiography (at 21) “dedicated to my dick”.

“I was out of control,” he says. “I was lucky to get through it, but it made me stronger and, I hope, wiser. I had a lot of demons to fight. Maybe that’s why this character is my favourite role so far...”

Before Grand Theft Auto, before Manhunt, Max Payne sealed the idea that videogames could be more than jaunty interactive cartoons. They were for grown-ups, too. It’s doomy, cynical, brutal, brooding: a classical revenger’s tragedy played out in an uncaring gothic metropolis.

Max – who narrates, neo-noir style – is a cop haunted by the murder of his wife and baby daughter. Sent out to undercover pasture, grazing on cold cases, he sniffs a conspiracy behind a designer drug called Valkyr. Could its makers have fuelled – or even instructed – the killers of his family?

Max goes rogue, teams up with lady-assassin Mona Sax (Mila Kunis, in the film), infiltrates the Mob, gets framed for a colleague’s murder, takes counsel from a grizzled mentor (Beau Bridges), clashes with an internal affairs attack-dog (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) and, eventually, swoops down on the ice-maiden business woman (Kate Burton) he believes is the root of the rot. He’s hell bent and – judging by the twisted nightmare-visions of winged gargoyle beasties – possibly hell bound...

“The hallucinations are a side-effect of this drug that’s been leaked onto the streets,” says Wahlberg. “A lot of the conspiracy comes from that: Max finds out that it’s a drug tested by the military to create super-soldiers, but someone has flooded the streets with it. It makes crack look like chocolate. He has to take it to keep up with the fight. But yeah, there’s a definite theme of Max fighting the devils inside. There’s a lot of action in this movie, but there’s also plenty of emotion and psychology. It goes pretty deep.”

Videogame movies are blessed/cursed with a pre-built but purist fanbase. So far, the blog bitching has targeted Max Payne’s director, Irishman John Moore, who made 2006’s limp redux of The Omen. But from what Total Film has seen, it’s the action-angst cocktail of Moore’s 2001 Bosnia war-thriller Behind Enemy Lines that makes him a tight fit for Payne. If he can mesh his lust for Tony Scott-style pyrotechnics with the game’s Matrix-apeing bullet-time balletics and get Wahlberg playing to his strengths – taking Payne deeper than just feral vigilante – Moore just might have the first videogame-based commercial-critical hit on his hands.

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