The Max Payne videogames looked set to make terrific movies, and a franchise was in the offing – but things didn’t quite go to plan.
By the time the second Max Payne videogame was released in 2003, to acclaim and impressive sales, it seemed to be a case of when not if a movie adaptation was on the way. The games drip with cinematic stylings, crossed with comic book influences, and were as much a joy to watch as they were to actually play. Plus, the whole bullet time mechanic in the games was more than familiar to audiences, in the wake of The Matrix.
As it happened, the rights had already been swiftly snapped up by this point. Collision Entertainment acquired them before the release seemingly of even the first game, off the back of the buzz and word of mouth the project was generating. Remedy, the company behind Max Payne, figured a movie deal was a good way forward. But once the deal was done, that was as far as it and its creative team’s involvement went.
It took a few years to get the project going, and a sizeable catalyst would be Collision taking the project to 20th Century Fox, after struggling for years to get the film moving itself for many years.
Fox, then, took pitches from a bunch of writers, eventually settling on one from Beau Thorne, his first produced screenplay (and last to date). Notably, Shawn Ryan – the creator of the TV series The Shield – had been attached as writer back in 2002 back when Collision was trying to make the film, but that ultimately didn’t work out.
The idea was for it to be the first of a film franchise, and Fox announced at the end of 2007 that Mark Wahlberg had taken on the title role. His casting was generally praised at the time, but fans were inevitably concerned that the adult themes (not that kind) of the games would be watered down to get a family friendly rating, as a studio was likely to demand.
That battle was ahead, though. At this stage, John Moore – who had made Behind Enemy Lines, The Omen remake and Flight Of The Phoenix for Fox – was hired to direct. Filming began in early 2008, and the team at Remedy were following its development the same way everyone else was: via movie news sites. The game creators were being kept at arm’s length.
Still, fan enthusiasm persisted through the film’s production in 2008, and there was a belief it would break the curse of the videogame-inspired movie. The search was very much on for a film that did its parent game justice, and the ingredients were clearly there with Max Payne.
Filming thus wrapped up in May of 2008, and a first cut was submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for it to bestow its rating. The problems began. To the anger of John Moore, the MPAA advised that it was going to be given an R. Moore would publicly criticise the organisation and accusing it of double standards, given what Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight had been able to get away with under the umbrella of PG-13.
As he told Digital Spy, “I took issue with them and I appealed, and I said ‘you’ve no right to judge intent, you’ve only a right to judge content.’ We won, we did not make cuts and I’m very proud of that. I’m sure they will get me back on the next movie”. Not strictly true, as it happened. Moore had to remove some blood from shots to get the rating moved down from an R to a PG-13.
Furthermore, an ‘uncut’ version of the movie would then be released on disc, with three minutes of extra footage and a lot more blood. That cut of the movie would not carry an MPAA rating.
Moore was clearly bruised by the ratings battle – he was still being asked about it a month or two later when the film came to the UK, and he still had answers – but he had his PG-13 rating, as had been mandated by Fox.
In the UK, the BBFC would give it a 15 certificate. But still, the word coming out of the press junket was that it was a film that captured the very dark world of Max Payne – something its creative talent was keen to emphasise – and that the movie hadn’t compromised on that.
Furthermore, all concerned were planning more. The plan then was for a second film, and appreciating it’s commonplace now, it was still the exception rather than the norm in 2008 to have a post-credits sequence setting up the sequel. Yet that’s just what Max Payne had.
Here’s a tease for what was in store from the end of the first film…
But it, fairly obviously, was not to be.
When the movie was released, the backlash was quick, instant and pretty brutal. Reviews were not on the kind side. Remedy was not keen. Worse for all concerned, the fans weren’t impressed with the film either, and whilst it accrued $85m at the worldwide box office – off a $35m budget – it was quickly clear that nobody was thirsting for a follow-up. The audience who turned up opening weekend – the film opened with a strong $17m in the US – was not spreading good word of mouth. Thus, whilst the production design came in for praise, few were going out of their way to defend much else about the film.
Sam Lake, creative director of developers Remedy, looked back on the movie in 2015 in a chat with Game Informer. He was polite, but clearly not overly impressed. “If we would have been involved, I think that there would have been a few different, kind of, solutions along the way”, he said. He added that “obviously they had watched the game really, really closely. I think that how it’s stylized and how the locations are done and the actors chosen – on a visual level, I think that they had looked very, very closely”.
Still, he also added that were Remedy to be involved in a movie again, it would want a lot more creative involvement. In the aftermath of the subsequent Max Payne 3 game that followed many years later, it seemed that the enthusiasm for this particular franchised had petered out.
One coda to the story. With Fox not pressing ahead with Max Payne 2, the baton was actually picked up by a fan film. Max Payne: Retribution was the work of writer/director Leroy Kincaide. With barely any budget and a 40 minute-or so running time, it earned notably more acclaim than the far more expensive feature that preceded it…
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