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Insights through Max Payne: Life Lessons from a Video Game Movie

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageSometimes life provides you with unexpected treasures.

When I sat down to watch Max Payne, I expected it to be a terrible video game adaptation, made solely in the hopes that gamers would flock to the title without caring about the dire signs of its own mediocrity. Little did I know that, in actuality, I would experience a movie that taught me an awful lot about life itself.

Now there will be some naysayers who claim that there's no way that Max Payne could be nearly as profound as I am claiming it to be. These are the people who will call this movie (sorry, film) stupid, and hackneyed, and predictable, and boring. They will no doubt point to several factors to back this up, such as:

The Plot – After the murder of his wife three years ago, Max Payne has withdrawn from society, demoting himself from a beat cop to the desk jockey of the cold case room, and spending his nights searching for the elusive third killer of his family. After both his former partner, and some awful skank Payne randomly meets and pointedly does not bone are found murdered as well, Payne becomes the main suspect, and a pariah amongst his former friends and colleagues. Payne delves deeper into all three of these crimes, and finds they are all related, and revolve around a mysterious drug that causes people to see giant flying birds soaring around them. As Payne gets closer to the shocking truth of his wife's death, it is clear that he strives for his own death, as a means to finally reunite with his beloved…though life, it turns out, has other plans for him.

The Performances – From the beginning to the end of Max Payne, there are well-known faces that seem to be there only for the paycheck, or other blatantly ulterior motives. Mark Wahlberg, in the titular role, once again finds himself in the sort of role he clearly imagines is perfect for him (intense, brooding, ass-kicking) and ends up varying each line between either quietly intense, intensely quiet, or shouting. Chris O'Donnell shows up for one and a half scenes as the guy who knows something he's not telling. but will die before he reveals all of it. In the role of the Internal Affairs cop investigating Payne, Ludacris channels Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, except for the nuance or depth. Mila Kunis shows up for some unknown reason pretending to be dangerous, and Beau Bridges wins the “What's HE doing in this?” award for his role as Payne's father's former partner, now turned security head at the company where Payne's wife worked at the time of her death. But that has no bearing on anything, I can assure you.

Sure, the haters out there might reference these two elements of Max Payne as evidence that it's a terrible movie. They could point out the gaping plot holes and the largely wooden performances as proof that no one except teenage gaming nerds could possibly take anything from it…but that would be missing the forest for the trees. For those of us with a keen and discerning eye, Max Payne is FAR more than a horrible movie destined to find its way as a future discount DVD lying in the bin next to Van Helsing and Doom. It is, in fact, a brilliant compilation of wisdom…not unlike the Bible.

While it would be irresponsible of me to reveal all of the nuggets of true wisdom hidden within Max Payne (that is a journey of discovery best embarked upon alone), I would be remiss if I didn't share at least some of them. Here, in no particular order, is just some of the enlightenment awaiting you:

There is no difference between rain and snow – Very pointedly, the only time sunshine is seen in Max Payne is during the flashbacks where Payne's wife is alive, and at the very end. At all other points, Payne's New York is bitterly fighting off the effects of a protracted winter and a massive storm front. Snow falls throughout the film, except in certain scenes where there is rain instead. In fact, at several moments, the weather fluctuates between rain and snow, then back again, in the span of only a few minutes. The message here is clear: no matter how severely one's heart can become frozen over, you must always be prepared for those moments where it melts.

Grief causes forgetfulness – From the beginning of the movie, we learn that Max Payne has been investigating his wife's murder, to the detriment of everything else in his life. When Payne meets and brings home the aforementioned skank, great care is taken to show us that she has a huge tattoo of a bird wing on her forearm. In fact, when she is found dead the next day (with her limbs scattered along an alleyway), Payne identifies her not by her face, but rather by this limb. Later on, while examining a picture of the crime scene, Payne former Partner Tao of Steve has a flash of inspiration. He pulls out the photos from Payne's wife's murder, and discovers that one of the killers (who Payne himself killed) has…a huge tattoo of a bird wing on HIS forearm! Later still, Payne goes to the storage locker where he keeps his wife's things to look at her work documents, and discovers that this tattoo is almost exactly the same as the corporate logo for the company his wife worked for at the time of her death. Now one would imagine that a detective of even passing ability might have made some kind of connection before this moment, but as this film so astutely shows us, grief can cloud the minds of even the very best of us.

Tattoo Artists are scholars – Once Payne realizes the similarities between all those bird wings, he tracks down the tattoo parlor where they were created. He asks the freaky guy behind the counter about them, and he learns everything he could possibly need to know about them: how they represent the wings of the Valkyrie, the winged demons in Norse mythology who transport warriors to the afterlife. Norse soldiers even had them tattooed onto their bodies for luck in combat, since in their belief system, those who died in combat went to heaven, while those who went in their sleep went to hell. Luckily for Payne, this tattoo artist had a large hardcover book just sitting on his counter which offered illustrated images of everything Payne needed to know. Call it a scene of arbitrary and illogical exposition, and you have missed the true point that tattoo aficionados are all classics majors, the significance of which I am sure I need not relate here.

Anger replaces sleep – Max Payne spends all day working at the police precinct, and all night hunting his wife's killers. Someone actually urges him to get sleep at one point. And yet, despite this relatively hectic schedule, he never even yawns once!! Just goes to show what you can do if you put your mind to it.

Rage is stronger than hypothermia – While running from bad guys, Max Payne jumps into the river. This is, remember, the middle of winter, and said river is covered in ice. While under water, Payne has to move chunks of ice so he can get his head up to breathe. Now to normal people, such a situation would mean death in about a single minute. However, due to the righteous rage coursing through his body, he is able to survive at least two minutes of swimming, followed by a lengthy interlude where he considers dying, followed by his escape once he decides to keep going.

1% is still great odds – Max Payne learns that there is a drug on the market that makes 1% of the people who take it invincible, but forces the other 99% to have awful hallucinations that seemingly constantly lead them to their deaths. Despite these odds, Max takes the drug at a key moment…and he's OKAY! Power of positive thinking here, people

The certainty that your enemy will be killed by someone else is not as appealing as a chance at doing it yourself – This is one of the deeper truths revealed in Max Payne. During the first climax of the movie, Max Payne is fighting with a former soldier hopped up on that drug (who was in that lucky 1%). Max hasn't taken it himself yet, so he is losing badly. At the height of the battle, Payne's assailant rears up with a machete in hand to slice a powerless Payne in two, but just before the final blow can be delivered, he is shot and killed by Beau Bridges, thus saving Payne's life. However, in the VERY NEXT SCENE, Bridges and his henchman tie Payne up, and start making preparations to kill him by dumping him in the river. I'm not really sure why he didn't just let that soldier finish the job he was about to finish, but I'm sure the answer will come to me through repeated viewings. This brings us to the final, and most important, lesson from this movie:

Never trust the Bridges Brothers – I know we all loved The Fabulous Baker Boys, but it seems clear at this point that the Bridges Brothers have turned to a life of crime. First, we had Jeff Bridges in Iron Man, playing hero Tony Stark's friend and confidante, only to discover that he was behind all of Stark's woes after all. And here (Spoiler Alert!!) in Max Payne, we have brother Beau, playing hero Max Payne's friend and confidante, only to discover that he was behind all of Payne's woes after all. The message here is clear: if you come into contact with any member of the Bridges family, contact your local authorities immediately.

In short, if good writing, a coherent story, or capable acting is what you enjoy in your movies, then Max Payne is not for you. But for those of you looking for more, far more…then I'll see you at the discount bin in about three weeks.