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Max (Mark Wahlberg) earned his wounds in the sort of battle familiar to action-movie fans: Coming home one night, he found his wife Michelle (Marianthi Evans) and their child murdered. Max caught up with two of the perps but caught only a fleeting glimpse of the fleeing chief villain. (The movie gets its suspense from tracking clues to the third man.) We know that this kind of film introduces wives and kids for the sole purpose of killing them off and turning a loving husband into a revenge machine. You got the same deal in this summer's Death Race, where the Jason Statham character also loses his wife and baby, and endures the same frustrating near-miss of spotting the killer. But Statham channeled his mourning into a manly, stoic rage. Wahlberg's Max mostly broods; he's stolid, anomic, the walking (or, at the beginning and end of the film, swimming) dead.
So when a sexy babe named Natasha (Olga Kurylenko, who'll be James Bond's dangerous plaything in next month's Quantum of Solace) crosses paths with Max, she can read the romantic despair on his face. "What was her name?" she asks. Whose name? "The girl from the boring story you want to tell me." For a second we get a whiff of the movie Max Payne might have been: one that introduces standard contrivances only to upend them. Alas, this flash of wit is just another tease. Natasha is soon killed in an alley by unseen flying beasts. Too bad, since Kurylenko is the one watchable woman in Max Payne, and Mila Kunis, the ostensible tough-girl lead, is not up to the task. She has only a pout where her sexual swagger should be, and she doesn't meet the action-movie rule that a mysterious villainess-heroine should be at least as tall as a runway model (which Kurylenko is).
These wingy thingies are the movie's special-effects demons, and we finally catch a glimpse of one when one of Max's snitches, Owen Green (excellent sniveling by Joel Gordon), is teetering suicidally on his windowless window ledge; a nifty tracking shot out of Owen's apartment into the night reveals the 10-foot beast yanking him to his not-vivid-enough death.
The movie summons the usual suspects to populate the background: an implacable cop (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, also to be seen in RockNRolla); Max's ex-partner (Donal Logue) who suspects that he killed Natasha; and a big thug (the oddly but impressively muscled Amaury Nolasco) who's there to fight our grizzled hero. Beau Bridges offers consolation as an ex-cop (and partner of Max's father), now the head of security at the headquarters of the multinational company where Michelle used to work, and Chris O'Donnell fills in the plot as one of Michelle's old coworkers.
But these are just figures on a video screen, to be avoided or annihilated by this Max on a mission. At least in a video game the player decides who needs to be killed, and what trail to take in the labyrinth. The Max Payne moviegoers are passive hostages on a long ride they've taken so many times before. So gameboys are advised to man their PlayStations this weekend; action-movie fans in search of red meat can wait for the inevitably more graphic DVD version.