If I’ve got my pop-culture/pop-technology history right, the concept of “bullet time” first became really popular in The Matrix, which then inspired the Max Payne video game, which made heavy use of the effect. Now we get a movie based on that video game, and the results are about as you’d expect: much less interesting than any of its inspirations.
I’ve actually never played the game, but from seeing the movie, I think I get a good sense of how it works. The script for this film, in fact, feels hardly removed at all from its video game roots. To get a sense of what I mean: during the climax, Max (Mark Wahlberg) actually “powers up” and achieves both super-human strength and a temporary invulnerability to bullets. Somehow, this isn’t quite as stupid as it sounds, because the film does a good enough job setting things up prior to that point that we’re willing to accept it in context, to an extent. Even the fight sequences seem very video game-like, with Max fighting his way through waves of nameless footsoldiers before working his way to the “boss” before delivering a modicum of dialogue. Unfortunately, a movie audience expects a bit more plot than the occasional cut scene after each level is completed, as I believe is common in this style of shooter game, and the direct translation of pacing which is employed throughout the second half of this film simply doesn’t work on the big screen.
Likewise, most of the plot points here seem like they’d be engaging enough in a video game—where the focus is on the action, with occasional breaks for story progression—but in a feature film they are just too generic to engage an audience who expects anything more than a series of shoot-outs. Not to mention how derivative a lot of it feels: there’s a conspiracy involving super-soldiers that reminds us of V for Vendetta, and a relationship the main character has with his friend (Beau Bridges) that seems stolen from Strange Days.
Back to the “bullet time” concept: director John Moore appears to have decided that since it’s become so commonplace ever since the first Matrix movie (e.g., this past summer’s Wanted) that he needs to use it in an unconventional way: instead of slowing things down so that we can see bullets as they fly past heroes’ heads, he chooses to go to the high-speed cameras before the bullets are fired, snapping back to realtime speed once the trigger is pulled. The result is a very awkward pace to the action sequences that employ this effect (of which there are surprisingly few), where we find ourselves wondering why things are in ultra-slow-motion all of a sudden while Wahlberg accomplishes a mundane task, such as peering around a corner.
This film succeeds in what I found to be surprising areas, with an intriguing first act and a lot of darkly interesting ambiance, punctuated by capable camera work that gives the film a sense of scope that its story ultimately isn’t able to live up to. Mila Kunis shows up in a role that’s much smaller than her second-billing might lead you to expect, but she’s good as a “bad guy” and all too cute while brandishing her gun. Mark Wahlberg is always a capable actor, and he’s good here as usual, his only failure being his choice of films to appear in. There’s a post-credits coda scene that’s pretty long as far as post-credits scenes typically go that seems to set up a buddy-crimefighters sequel featuring Kunis and Wahlberg. Judging by the reception this film has received, though—and deservedly so—I don’t think that’ll be coming any time soon.