The Doom Dispatch: Payne vs. Payne: Great Games, Terrible Movies

Adapting video games into films should not be this hard. Books and plays are turned into good movies on a nearly monthly basis. Christ, even direction is a form of adaptation. The director has both the right and the necessity to cherry-pick and omit from a written screenplay. There is no such thing as “an original film.”

And yet, like trying to pole-vault without an actual pole, the evolutionary link between video game and film has yet to be cleared.

Now to be fair, I liked Silent Hill. It was an atmosphere engine which would have been a whole lot better if an actual script was used.

And as I may have unwisely mentioned in my review of Max Payne at filmarcade.net a week ago, I liked the Doom movie. Don’t blame me… The game came out when I was eight… We were on an anti-poverty board in Chicago together… The parties were hosted by the Annenbergs… SHUT UP!

But other than those, we have been treated to miserable failure after miserable failure. Super Mario Bros., both Tomb Raider films, anything with Uwe Boll’s name on it, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter. They all suck. Granted, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within came close to succeeding, but it failed to adhere to the spirit of the games. Namely, there were no she-dudes, giant chickens, or EEEEEEEENDLLEEEEEEEESSSSSSSS levelling-up.

But there is no simple majority yet to convene on a video game film. No 51% on the tomatometer, which, after the atrocities listed above, would be a victory.

And when I mentioned that last week’s Max Payne was the best chance yet of a good video game movie being made (and thus, given the film’s poor quality, the biggest blown opportunity), I was not kidding. This was heartbreaking to anyone who has played the game and loved it, as apparently a lot of people did, since it made enough money to made into a movie.

If you consider anything I have written even remotely thoughtful, I urge you strongly to pick up a copy of the Max Payne game. You can get the PC version for less than ten bucks at Office Depot. The game is eight years old, so unless you’re reading this article on a Commodore 64, your computer has the technical aspects to play it.

Yes, when you play it, it is a John Woo film simulator. But it is so faithful that you could almost imagine John Woo signing off on it. In fact, when John Woo came out with his own video game, Stranglehold (which was supposed to be a semi-sequel to Hard Boiled, with Chow-Yun Fat reprising his role as Inspector Tequila), a lot of game critics took it to task because it bore too much of a resemblance to, you guessed it, Max Payne.

But more than that, Max Payne the game had heart to spare. You played as a man with nothing to lose and without a friend in the world, who lets his lesser angels consume him in a mad quest for revenge. Through sheer immersion, you identified and empathized with Max’s character and grew to hate the forces of fate aligning against him. And the cut-scenes (which take the form of graphic novel panels) are strongly and sorrowfully written, getting inside Max’s head with the kind of sad and laconic virtuosity that Raymond Chandler used to get inside the head of Philip Marlowe.

I mentioned that I used a quote from the sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, to open my review of No Country For Old Men on myspace. For those of you that don’t want to bust ass trying to find it, here is the quote in full…

“There are no choices. Nothing but a straight line. The illusion comes afterwards, when you ask ‘Why me?’ and ‘What if?’. When you look back and see the branches, like a pruned bonsai tree, or forked lightning. If you had done something differently, it wouldn’t be you, it would be someone else looking back, asking a different set of questions.”

There is nothing — NOTHING! — in the film version of Max Payne that suggests that level of depth of writing. Come to think of it, I don’t think anyone involved could have read it properly. They might make it a couple of words in, but then need help. They might even need to lie down.

To get my nitpicky little fanboy gripes out of the way, the game characters of Vinnie Gognitti, Alfred Woden, and Vladimir Lem have been omitted from the film. Being as they’re pretty much the characters that propel the game into its sequel, the seemingly inevitable Max Payne 2 movie will not be an adaptation of the game, but rather some kind of expensive fan-fiction.

But that is a pittance to the greater problem of the film, which is that it truly is an exposition-laden, poorly executed, boring shootout that lasts for two hours. In their efforts to bring Max Payne to the screen, screenwriter Beau Thorne and director John Moore have effectively dehumanized Payne, taking not only the game as a victim, but also Mark Wahlberg, who was the man tasked to bring him to life.

A myspace friend of mine, Bobby the Inglorious Bastard, commented on my review of the film that “Hollywood needs to stop trying to make Mark Wahlberg an action hero. Let the man be an actor.” Which makes the failure of the film all the more frustrating. Had the film been done right, Wahlberg could have done exactly that.

But perhaps the most disastrous move the film could have made is in the scene that leads to the violent climax. Max, dragging himself out of frozen water, beaches himself on a dock. He reaches into the pocket of his leather jacket and finds a vial of the drug Valkyr, that everyone is killing each other over. Faced with the prospect of freezing to death, Max opens the vial and takes the drug. This makes him near-invulnerable and he hallucinates.

Now I know that the film isn’t advocating drug use. You know that. It’s just a movie and it is, after all, just pretend.

But not everyone is as smart as you or I. Some nutjob like Jack Thompson (the now disbarred Florida lawyer who tried with all of his black heart and pea-brain to get the games Bully and Grand Theft Auto IV banned) can look at this and say that video games are trying to get our kids to use drugs. They can look at the movie as a representation of the game and place the blame there. After everything else gamers and game developers have to put up with from Fox News and other right-wing censorship flag-wavers, they have to put up with THIS, too?

Also grist for that particular mill is John Moore’s public battle to bring the film in at a PG-13. He wanted kids to watch it!

It is one of the greater ironies that when Max takes the drug in the game (which was administered to him in an overdose by the game’s villains before he is left in an alley to die), the result isn’t that he becomes superhuman. The result is a dream sequence that is a colossal pain in the ass to get through.

The dream of a simple majority liking a video game may be a long time off. Video game movies will continue to be at least semi-ubiquitous because, like Christian-themed films, they have the power to lure in viewers on opening weekend who wouldn’t otherwise go to movies. After that, though, everyone is on their own regardless of quality. Video games are a billion dollar industry, they’re bound to bring in at least someone.

It will be a long time off, until the people who believe in games come of age and get film degrees and set out to put the wrong things right. Kind of how comic book fans came of age and gave us Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight. But therein lies the rub. Those kids, when they come of age? They might see fit to just cut out the middle man and get jobs making games themselves. And thus, this cycle of good games and shitty movies may never end.

Yes, I know we have Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia film to look forward to, as well as Gore Verbinski’s Bioshock

But apparently, there is also an adaptation of The Sims on the horizon.

And that simpleton Brett Ratner has rumbled that he’d like to make a Guitar Hero movie.

God help us all.


  1. Regarding the Max Payne flic – spot on! I also felt that there was a lack of depth, and the ONLY reason I went to see the movie was bc of Wahlberg.. I can understand them cutting out much of the game, perhaps for a sequel, but given what they decided to use, they did not do a good job.. some of the supporting actors were really bad too.. come to think of it, most of the action sequences were typical.. the only thing that kept me interested was the Valkyrie sequences..

    Comment by Siah — October 24, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

  2. i Applaud you for writing this. Its what everyone is thinking, ive yet to see the film (UK release date is Nov14th) but i know its going to suck, but becuase im such a huge fan of the games i have to see it. Im pretty sure my heart will bleed and break, because the film could have been immense. as soon as i saw on imdb the castlist i was also shocked to see no vinnie gognitti, vlad etc, i just dont see how they can follow the lupino storyline, which is frankly a smalltime, and annoying boss in the game and not follow vlad’s storyline.
    Thank you for saying it bluntly about the movie, i just hope i dont end up wanting 2hours of my life back after i see it

    Comment by machernucha — October 24, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

  3. Glad the Doom Dispatch is back!!

    Comment by Jerry — October 24, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

  4. Oh, you know the infinite genius that is Brett Ratner will deliver the video game movie to end all other video game movies with a mind-numbingly sweet PG-13 God of War flick.

    You KNOW it!

    Comment by The Movie God — October 24, 2008 @ 8:03 pm

  5. Wonderfully painful review, as always, Doc.

    It’s disappointing to hear that so many movies with so much potential in the last few weeks have been disappointing. This one is especially tough to hear about because the games are so near and dear to my heart.

    We can keep hoping, though! Silent Hill came the closest… now we just need someone to take it all the way.

    The key, as the comic filmmakers have discovered, is to just make a good movie… let the source material follow.

    Comment by NeverWanderer — October 25, 2008 @ 3:45 am

  6. Once again Geeks of Doom nail it! Well done


    Comment by Jiff MAson — October 25, 2008 @ 7:36 am

  7. I didnt read all the article, I stopped after you grouped some good movies with the actual bad ones.

    To be honest, your bash against movies was pritty lame and uncalled for. Not seen max payne, was never into the game. But I liked the tomb raider movies, pritty solid old school action movies. Never liked the tomb raider games though heh. Liked mortal kombats, good bit of harmless kung fu action.

    Street fighter and mario sucked though I agree.

    All in all not that constructive of a review.

    I only come here for the news anyway :)

    Comment by JustinSane — October 25, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

  8. This is from the same sight that thought that the “Living Dead” series was created by a John A. Romero. It was actually GEORGE A. Romero. I saw Max Payne and played both games. The film was great. It was not superb, but it was better than some of the other games turned movies. Mark Wahlberg played a phenomenal role in the film despite his lack of knowledge for the character. I could add a lot more to this comment, but I’ll leave it at this.

    Comment by Genya — October 25, 2008 @ 1:09 pm

  9. Video game movies are terrible for one reason… the narrative element of video games are terrible. It’s not the main point of video games. They are not a mostly passive format like movies are…the emphasis is on an interactive experience.

    I’m shocked that no one has learned this and that somehow people find ways to become excited about the next ‘this is going to be the one’ video game movie. I applaud their sense of optimism though and I relate to it, because the exact same thing happens to me in reverse when I get into the newest game that I’ve been told has a gripping narrative. I’ve done this with Halo, I’ve done this with Gears of War, I’ve done this with Grand Theft Auto IV. Don’t get me wrong, Gears of War and Grand Theft Auto IV were amazingly fun, immersive, and gorgeous…but not for one second did I see anything I’ve never seen before. Or was it something I would just like to watch. No character is so compelling that I would rather be watching the thing instead of playing it.

    “Oh wow, I went to do a deal with Russian arms dealer and it went bad and I shot a bunch of people.” This is Steven Seagal, straight-to-DVD happenings. Gripping is not the word I would ever use.

    Oh wow, ‘Space Marines’. Oh wow, slutty Bronx secretaries. Fascinating. The list of character cliches goes on and on, and when these characters are created by committee as opposed to a talented actor that brings along their own thoughts and quirks to the framework you get from a movie script, you get a character assembled from the collective cliched memories of dozens of people.

    Once again, these games are often fun as hell and are amazing technical achievements to say the least. But until a video game character is strong and real enough to become as iconic a character as Hannibal Lecter, Vito Corleone, Jack Torrance from The Shining, Vincent Vega, or even The Joker from this summer, movies from video games will be the disappointments they have been for what…20 years now.

    Comment by Giuseppe — October 25, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

  10. Found this article on digg, and all I can say is that this is a great analysis. Max Payne is one of my favourite series of all time, and you got it exactly right on what they did wrong.

    Comment by Baconmccord — October 25, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

  11. Nice review. But you’re being too rough on Ratner, simpleton and director of Red Dragon don’t go in the same sentence.

    Comment by Daniel — October 25, 2008 @ 7:52 pm

  12. Actually you are wrong in one point in this article .
    In Max Payne the game he was always on some type of drugs have it be forced induced intoxication or of his own choice.

    If you actually paid attention in the game and im assuming you did after he lost his wife and child he lost all morality and reason to life and become a constant user to fight off the pain.

    its plain as day in the game.

    Saying he never did drugs only when forced is a little odd thing to say because its not actually true.

    it also brought a lot of controversy to the game when it was first released some people argued the game was only about killing and drugs and in a way it is though their is a story the game was made to be extremely faced passed to get you into the game having fun and it worked.

    That last part is just my 2Cent’s

    Comment by fred — October 25, 2008 @ 11:20 pm

  13. of course it is hard to adapt video games. the person who had the original creative vision knows nothing about making movies. and probably likes weirder movies to begin with

    Comment by Bored — November 4, 2008 @ 11:11 am


    Not every video game has to go to the big screen but I think that hollywood should play the games and look at the stoyline before they start making the movie,but the 1994 Street Fighter movie was not good but Mortal Kombat follow its roots,but the Street Fighter movie remake is focus on Chun Li but I don’t know if this movie will work out in the box office,will see.
    Tekken is another video game turned into film and it centers around Jin Kazuma but I was not very happy with the filmmakers following its trademark it should start from the beginning and if hollywood could be doing the Virtua Fighter movie with all characters from the games in one film.
    I think that the live action Soul Calibur movie should be done by some Asian and Europian filmmakers and it should have the storyline based on the first game and it should have some storytelling as well.
    Onimusha is still on hold but I think the screenwriters should rewrite the plot to get rid of the Big trouble in Little China storyline of the plot and do it all again to follow the story from the Onimusha Warlords game.
    Darkstalkers could go into the big screen and I think Capcom should make some money on markets with Mortal Kombat movie makers Threshold Entertainment to work on the movies and TV series and video games,Threshold has lost Ninja Scroll to Warner Bros which i’m not happy with.
    Thank you.

    Comment by Bruce Darren Acosta — November 8, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

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