Cut Scenes is Josh’s regular examination of the intersection between video game and film. On the ticket this time, it’s Max Payne 3 and Man on Fire.
“Was I there to make something right? Or was I just using a messed-up situation to indulge myself, grasping at some desperate delusion of control?” Such is the line of inquiry raised by Max Payne, a former cop going out of his mind in São Paulo. The irony is that the game in question, Max Payne 3, never goes anywhere else. It’s all in Max’s mind, filtered through his boozy brain. Hence the heavy saturation, as the colours – sick yellows and greens – thicken and throb in solidarity with Max’s hangover. It’s a nice conceit: if you’re making a game about a guy who has been beaten down by life, why not show that life in the hues of a bruise?
The crux of the game is that its hero, whose wife and child were gunned down years ago, has tumbled off the map. (At least, the map as it pertains to New York and a few slush-laden patches of New Jersey.) He has landed in Brazil, after a long fall, working as a private security contractor for the Branco family, whose wealth is both airy and choking. A typical day for the younger Brancos entails a ride in a helicopter, flutes of champagne, and ridges of finely chopped white powder. Max’s free time is spent behind the bars of his own woe: sobbing, falling about his apartment, pickling himself in whiskey, and trying not to punch the man in the mirror. It reminds you of the opening of Apocalypse Now, in which Martin Sheen does much the same routine. Except the end of Max’s days came a long time ago, and his problem is that he didn’t end with them. Essentially, the pitch for Max Payne 3 is: Apocalypse, Now What?
Another room, another sunny city, and more private gloom. Man on Fire, directed by Tony Scott, centres on Creasy. Creasy, however, is not the sort of man on whom things centre very easily – in part because he doesn’t have one of his own. In a former life, he worked for the C.I.A., doing a menu of murky deeds; now he’s in Rio de Janeiro, hired to protect Lupita Ramos, the daughter of an automaker. During the day, he drives her to school, accompanies her to swimming practice, and lets her chip away at his armour. By night, he drinks.
For Max Payne 3, Rockstar borrowed the visual style that Scott cultivated in the 2000s – in the way that you might cultivate orchids in a sweltering greenhouse. In films such as Man on Fire, Domino, and Déjà Vu, Scott went for saturation, blurred focus, and heavy cutting (pretty much Max’s nightly regime). Back then, it was a wise precaution to head into a Tony Scott movie with a bucket of popcorn in one hand and a box of paracetamol in the other. Rockstar also cribbed Scott’s habit of hanging random subtitles in the air, in order to drive home key information – call it a visual longhand. Both Max and Creasy fail in their jobs, sober up, broker a truce with an honest Brazilian cop, and make it their mission to chase a band of kidnappers.
Needless to say, the outcome for both men is mayhem. For Creasy, this involves quietly poking a bazooka from an upstairs window, the better to blow up a motorcade of villains. For Max, it means shaving his head, sweating the liquor from his bloodstream, and diving through the air in slow motion with a pair of pistols blaring. It isn’t the merry carnage that the two men foster that puts them in such close spiritual proximity. It’s the notion that their deeds may or may not be redemptive, and that doubt masses in the air like thunder. “She showed him it was all right to live again,” someone says, explaining Creasy’s drive to find Lupita, and to punish those responsible. But you wonder, as the bodies pile up, just who he is doing it for, and whether, like Max, he may be using a messed-up situation to indulge himself. As one character says, “Creasy’s art is death . . . He’s about to paint his masterpiece.”
That both crusaders wind up tracking the smell of malevolence back to their employers is only fitting: they aren’t heroes so much as janitors, and the messes that they mop up are a stinking extension of their own inner damage. Hence the drink. Both men have failed before they begin – they have quit their jobs, quit their senses, and all but quit their lives. (Creasy’s sloshed evening ends with him pressing a gun to his head.) It’s a rare thing, in games, for doubt to be given its due. It’s a medium that trains us to win, to trounce our enemies, to kill whatever gets in the way: its art is death. That’s why the image of Max in his room hangs around long after the rest of the game has hazed over. Like Creasy, before he starts his rampage he takes aim at an enemy that has been around longer than anyone else.