There's film noir, and then there's "Max Payne," which is so dark it looks as if the negative were dropped in a puddle of ink. In the Stygian gloom of John Moore's video-game derivative, there's no contrast between light and shadow, only between shadows and slightly darker shadows. Woe to the moviegoer who shows up late and has to grope around for a seat.
Woe, in fact, to the moviegoer who shows up at all. Turning video games into movies may be one way for studios to coax teenagers away from their laptops, but this time around, the results are miserable, in every sense of the word.
His face fixed in a permanent scowl, Mark Wahlberg plays the detective with the dolorous surname, scouring the streets of a perpetually overcast city on a hunt for the man who murdered his wife and child. He makes a few acquaintances along the way with similarly colorful monikers: a slinky Russian named Mona Sax (Mila Kunis) and an Internal Affairs cop named Lt. Bravura (Chris Bridges, better known as the rapper Ludacris). But one would hesitate to call them friends. Down these monochrome streets, a man must walk alone.
Max Payne struggles mightily to give its hero's quest the dimensions of myth. The script, by Beau Thorne, is littered with references torn from Norse mythology (or, more likely, from back issues of Thor). There's a drug called Valkyr, which turns a lucky few into bulletproof warriors and the rest into gibbering lunatics who see menacing winged beasts in every dark alley. (It's never entirely clear whether they're meant to be real, or if they've just been added to give a routine vigilante-justice yarn a little supernatural kick.)
The company that makes the drug, and once employed the late Mrs. Payne, is called Aesir, the collective name for the tribe of Norse gods. There's even a club called Ragnarok, named for the end of days. (Apparently, the talking ravens Hugin and Munin will have to wait for the sequel.) Strangely, for all the Scandinavian words being lobbed about, there's not a fair-haired soul in sight. No doubt they'd spoil the color scheme.
The myth that Max Payne truly embodies, though, is of a distinctly more mundane cast. Scorned by his superiors, abandoned by his peers, left to fend for himself in a world only he truly understands, Max is the very image of the adolescent boys who are the movie's (and, no doubt, the game's) target audience. The deaths of his wife and child not only provide Max with an excuse for his sullen demeanor, but also prevent him from having to deal with any of that scary sex stuff. The only woman who does come on to him, a slinky number in a scarlet negligee, gets tossed out into the snow and sliced into a dozen pieces, the better to give Max more time to play with his guns.
It's understandable that teenagers want to wolf down this stuff, but one has to wonder about the full-grown men who commit large chunks of their lives to turning out power fantasies for 13-year-olds. There's a case that still needs solving.
"Max Payne." MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence including intense shooting sequences, drug content, some sexuality and brief strong language. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. In wide release.