Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Theology of Max Payne 3


There is often so much more to rendered pixels and splattered colors. In finishing the nearly 12 hour campaign, I was struck with so many thoughts and wonders. This won't be a review, though there will be spoilers. However, I am more interested in the narrative and oft potent theological motifs explored in Max Payne 3 and how they relate relevant worldviews and perspectives.


In the beginning, there was Jack Daniels. Though similar to Denzel Washington's character in Man On Fire, this drunken and violent loser is far more compelling. The opening, rendered in stunning cinematics and a distraught voice over relays the trajectory for the next 12 hours. 

Simply, Max Payne is the embodiment of the worst we can become. He is not only crawling beneath the bottom of the barrel, he's found a new dimension of sorrow and pain. To many, he is not worth saving and he has little desire to save himself. For him to down painkillers and alcohol, then throw up as if this is normal brings a horrifying concept:

How can you save someone who doesn't want to be saved?

And how does this relate to God, free will, and the terror of the unknown specter of possible damnation and redemption?

In Brazil of his own (free?) choice, Max begins contractual work for a ludicrously wealthy family, swerving on top of the South American food chain. Brazil, as it is presented, reminds of me of the stereotypes of the 80s: coke, whores, and corporate yupsters (a new term?). It is here where the haunted Max actually seems relatively normal. At least, normal enough.

Within the first few minutes, we are treated to a critique of excessive capitalism and a fractured family atmosphere that seems to correlate very well with the United States. Commercialism is seen as god-like and people pursue it past every little thing that would offer true pleasure. It is here where Max Payne is not only alone, but rotting away beneath the floorboards of excess and sadness.

He doesn't want to be saved.


After the abduction of his boss's trophy wife, Max goes on a failed rampage, with each passing sequence more personal than the last. Unaware of the cultural shifts and politics, Max blunders headfirst into an already delicate situation (another critique of the United States) and tries to blast his way into saving the woman. 

It is interesting to notice that the further Max gets along in his quest, the more ambiguous he seems to feel about saving himself. At many points, you genuinely wonder if he is actually pursuing redemption and is instead simply hoping for that one lucky bullet to put him out of his misery. In fact, the second option seems far more plausible. 

God is never directly mentioned in the story, but for every lens flare and operatic cut scene, the presence of something is near. The specter of death, as mentioned, is close. However, the dualistic apparition of damnation/redemption is closing in and Max seems to realize this. Yet he continues to track down this woman through airports, train stations, buildings, strip clubs and the favela. 


He had many chances to drunkenly blast himself away. It seems being of sober mind reduces the suicidal tendencies. Why doesn't he kill himself? It has nothing to do with a God-complex, and the idea soon becomes a little more clear:

He is actually pursuing redemption. He seems his redemption in saving the life of an abducted woman. And this brings me to another idea. We, as people, are often the most staunch believers in our "truths" and often it takes a complete and total paradigm shift in order to shake us from our beliefs. A racist meets a minority that helps him. A drunkard meets his only son for the first time. Max has encountered, in the very essence of his being, the true desire to genuinely save. 

Instead of succumbing to failures, Max continues to press on.


The concept of redemptive violence and the spilling of blood has it's roots in the political games of old and the myths of the past. In fact, it makes for great and compelling story telling. Who doesn't want to see Neo shoot hundreds of people and Leonidas vanquish his enemies. However, when encountered with villains that feed off the innocent, Max is stricken by revulsion and is actually moved into a greater action. To view true inhumanity should bring about a tidal wave of change. To not only save and punish, but to eradicate. His view of evil shifts from an individual focus to a corporate. Yes, "corporate" functions in a nice way as a double meaning.

And it makes more sense to me that, while I've begun to question the morality of "redemptive violence" (particularly in war), I cannot shake the crucifixion. In fact, the very act of what has reconciled all things is indeed a violent act, a horrific act. In fact, the pierced hands and feet seem to defy such a thing. This gives me great pause. It all comes back to the Christ.

Max Payne, in his campaign to save an innocent woman and to finally restore his honor, is walking right towards his own crucifixion, as if going to the ends of the earth means something now. He is willing to die and a shocking thing happens: while he has a dim view of human nature (particularly his own), he does subscribe a wealth of worth towards the woman and a hint towards himself. If he truly thought anyone else could do a better job, he would stop and return to his addiction. 

But he doesn't. He doesn't even ask for the cup to be pulled away from his lips. He rushes into it with a passionate fury.

If not me, who else?

I do wonder if the Christ wondered such a thing at any point.


Max's baptism is in both blood and fire, and as the hero walks away into the sunset, he is still scared and broken and beaten. The sins of the past have the hope of resolution in a future existence, and Max is prepared to face such things once again. In a hopeless place, Max found redemption.


  1. As a continuation of what I posted on FB: Max goes on about how, to him, it's all bad guys payed to shoot at each other and that he's nothing more. Interestingly, he's so hard boiled that he doesn't understand the morality of what he's doing (and makes a big point of that at the beginning/end). The players get the perspective that he doesn't. We see Max come alive: failing miserably at anything but mere survival when money is the motivator, but then excelling when a matter of the greater good arises (note that this is why Passos doesn't get on the wrong side of Max's wrath; Passos' role was bigger than he let on, but he was still just a goon. Passos' greater good comes in the form of the sister [i forget her name]). If you want to get Christian with it, the two sides of the fight are both motivated by money (wealth is associated with guilt and immorality), it's only when Max "unwittingly" ascends beyond that do things start to go his way. Without ascending beyond worldly motivations to worldly ends, it doesn't matter if you're a drunken ex-cop protecting contractors, or a human trafficker: ultimately we're all a bunch of bought goons shooting at each other.

    That's why I ate up the story.