Five Actors Who Should Play Max Payne

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In this series, we speculate on what actors would be the perfect choice to play an upcoming character, or what type of character a particular actor is best suited for. Feel free to unilaterally agree with all our picks voice your opinion in the comments!

I love the Max Payne series. The first game was a fantastic action romp that proved how vital a third-person view could be to game mechanics, and the story and characters were a lot of fun. I’m biased, since I adore noir detective stories. That’s why I still had fun with the second installment, despite it feeling like a rehash. The third game brought an entirely new setting and an entirely new version of Max to play as, and while it was really depressing to see that side of the character, I appreciated the truth in his emotional and physical downward spiral.

I can’t even mention the 2008 movie adaptation, because it hurts my soul. Not just as a fan of the series, but as a moviegoer. I had the foresight to show it to someone uninitiated in the plot and intricate web of characters, and they were repulsed and confused and angry with the results just as I was. To quote a lovely girl I knew in school, “I would poop on that movie.”

But beyond the undercooking of the lazily-ported plot, the gonzo visual salad that jars viewers into confusion (CGI Valkyries as nightmare fuel), and a severe misunderstanding of the entire noir genre, I have to say the casting of Max himself is the most infuriating thing about that movie. Mark Wahlberg is a perfectly fine actor, but he’s also pretty limited in his abilities, even when he’s trying. His best roles are as abrasive jackasses (The Departed) or wide-eyed innocent lummoxes (Boogie Nights). He can’t pull off playing an emotionally broken, self-deprecating, wry gumshoe who has lost his sense of morality in his quest for the truth. That’s above his job description. Instead, he played Max Payne as completely devoid of all nuance and emotion… a stoic murder machine. This is Wahlberg’s standard setting when collecting an action-genre paycheck.

So, who would be better as Max?

David Boreanaz Comic-Con 2012

1. David Boreanaz

While remembered as the vampiric private eye Angel by a large contingent, Boreanaz has spent the last decade playing FBI Special Agent Booth on TV’s “Bones,” and has gotten some really meaty action and drama experience therein. Because the show trades in bouncy humor as much as guts and gore, there’s also been a platform for his goofy charm and comedic timing. More often than not, Boreanaz gets the thankless job of recoiling at the sight of gross human remains or asking the scientist characters dopey questions about the evidence. Somehow, he never looks clueless and always conveys his character’s years of weariness in the face of murderers and criminal behavior.

Moreover, his grim and tired voice would match well with the ongoing narration Max provides. The action sequences and snappy dialogue as Max would be right at his speed, and Boreanaz has demonstrated an appropriate hardnosed attitude. I would buy him getting punched in the face and then standing up again to mock his attacker. That’s certainly something Wahlberg never had.

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Lee Pace - Guardians of the Galaxy premiere - July 2014 (cropped)

2. Lee Pace

Once starring in the bewitching and strange “Pushing Daisies” as Ned, the meek pie-baker with a morbid ability to raise the dead, Pace has picked up his…um, pace. Now he’s known for his commanding presence as the King of the Elves in the Hobbit trilogy and as Roan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy. But his more substantive work of late has been on AMC’s delightfully self-important and trashy “Halt and Catch Fire,” as the narcissistic and unstoppable business mind Joe MacMillan. Pace has this rare ability in modern actors to appear powerful and fragile at the same time, which is a fundamental trait of Max Payne.

The character’s psyche and his physical state are always vulnerable, and as his stories unfold and all of his allies are ruthlessly snatched from him, a regression begins to form in his behavior. Pace could show us the complicated changes that hit Max during each game in the series: he begins as a dry, shabby shell of a person whose work is the only fuel for his existence. Through the course of investigating each mystery, Max claws back some of his humanity when he becomes driven to find truth/justice/revenge/clarity. Then, as the repeated failures stack up on him, he becomes a self-aware cold killer. This transformation would be the true arena for Pace’s take on the character.

David Ramsey 2014 (cropped)

3. David Ramsay

A veteran character actor with a resume a mile long, Ramsay has more recently settled into his regular character on the CW’s “Arrow,” John Diggle. As “Dig,” the former Army Ranger who was hired to protect rich playboy Oliver Queen and gets swept into a conspiracy to protect the city, Ramsay has moved past the stone-faced henchmen and respectable/forgettable politicians that pepper his earlier roles. Diggle is also a man with an ever-shifting support system, and Ramsay is at his best on the show when his character’s perspective on family, trust, and the value of his work are tested.

This is a great facet of Max Payne that is frequently forgotten: his work. As a DEA agent, NYPD detective, and eventually private security goon in Brazil, Max has been idealistic and determined in his past but has ultimately boiled himself down to “a particular set of skills” to borrow from another action hero. Ramsay’s Payne would be the requisite gruff and irreverent soldier that he’s played for four years already. But Ramsay would also give the appropriate resigned nihilism, the bunched fists of a man who has pulled a thousand triggers and will kill his way to the truth because he isn’t savvy enough to play games. His Max would no doubt be the scariest and most morally ambiguous, a real 1970s vigilante cop in the vein of Dirty Harry or Death Wish.

Colin Hanks SXSW 2015

4. Colin Hanks

While Ramsay might be the coiled muscle that Max Payne embodies, Hanks might be the raw nerve. Star of buddy-cop show “The Good Guys” and son of legendary Tom Hanks, Colin has more recently made a name for himself in tense drama with his guest spots on full seasons of “Dexter” as a deranged bible-themed serial killer and on FX’s wonderful “Fargo” as a guilt-ridden Duluth police officer.

The macro explanation for Max Payne’s alcoholism, his pill addiction, his disregard for human life, and even his existential and detached perspective on his own journey come from his survivor’s guilt and unresolved anguish at the death of his young family. Hanks would knock the story out of the park in showing us the promising young detective living the dream in a little house in New Jersey, and then scare the crap out of us as the deteriorating basket case left over when his wife and infant daughter are slaughtered. In showing us the very real man Max is at the beginning, we would feel the gravity of his later deeds as the remorseless undercover agent-turned-invincible badass. And when he comes out on top we would know precisely what he was fighting for.

Zachary Quinto SDCC 2014

5. Zachary Quinto

The NBC comic book trifle “Heroes” was less of a gem for other actors, but it did wonders for Quinto. His early-in-the-show performance as the deranged, super-powered Hannibal Lecter type named Sylar, and his later evolution as the troubled antihero Gabriel, showed a range and command of his precise acting style that eventually landed him the role of Spock in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Quinto, as previous choices, would fit very well in Max’s power dynamic (as he often plays intellectually and physically superior men with emotional weakness), but he would also bring a schizophrenic sense of identity to the character.

While Quinto’s Sylar and Spock constantly put on personas to convince others or themselves of their control in a situation, Max Payne is a man constantly doffing costume identities. This is a consequence of his time with the mafia as an undercover operative, but it bleeds into his unreliable narration of the plot. When Max needs to be, he becomes the suave ladies man with Mona in order to get her cooperation. Sometimes, he plays the sadistic torturer. Often, he uses his humor to deflect antagonists and project a flippant attitude toward criminal behavior. It’s all a put-on. Max hates every second of his glib action-hero persona. His narrative voice is always quick to point out when his quips and barked ultimatums are stupid or overblown.

Quinto is the prescribed chameleon who could be the happy family man, the funny cop partner, the deranged and detached stalker, the old fashioned romantic, the black comic, and the square-jawed hero. And none of them at all.

Agree? Disagree? More ideas? Let us know in the comments.


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Daniel Epstein
Father, filmmaker, and writer. Once he won an Emmy, but it wasn't for being a father or writing.