RATING |

Max Payne

is a junkyard dog of a film that is true to its video-game roots even as it transcends them.

Irish director John Moore (

The Omen

) has fashioned an atmosphere darker than noir. His New York (a transformed Toronto) is a hellhole of back alleys, not boulevards; of deserted subway platforms, not teeming sidewalks; a place where ashy snow drifts down like endless regrets.

In this bleak warren, Max Payne stews. Dressed in black and packing a firearm heftier than Dirty Harry's, he's the Ahab of the police department. Played with quiet but convincing menace by Mark Wahlberg, Max is a dangerous man because he doesn't care if he dies. He has devoted himself to hunting down the killers of his beloved wife and child.

A snitch warns him, "You're chasing ghosts, Max." Actually his foes are far scarier.

In pursuing his vendetta, he barges into a vast conspiracy involving an addictive experimental serum, Norse mythology, and ravenous angels of death.

His adversary-turned-ally in this murky mystery is the lethal Russian mobstress Mona (a shockingly grown-up and compelling Mila Kunis of

That '70s Show

).

Kunis is not by any means the only primetime immigrant on the screen. Keep your eyes peeled and you'll see TV troupers from

Prison Break

,

The Wire

,

Heroes

and

Life

.

The deep and eclectic cast is one of the most striking things about

Max Payne

. The film is stacked with names ranging from Beau Bridges and Chris O'Donnell to rapper Ludacris (Chris Bridges) and singer Nelly Furtado, both in dramatic roles.

That's an impressive crew for a pulp project, however stylish.

The action scenes in

Max Payne

are excellent, particularly a stunning shootout that exceeds anything since the first

Matrix

release. (Don't you think Sam Peckinpah is spinning in his grave with jealousy over all the toys that modern directors get to play with?)

Unfortunately, the film goes off the spool in the final reel as the supernatural elements, the weakest part of the story, take over completely. Then, the film disappointingly resorts to an artificially redemptive conclusion.

By the time Mona pleads with Max, "You have to finish this," you may be shouting the same thing at the screen.

Max Payne *** (out of four stars)

Directed by John Moore. With Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges. Distributed by 20th Century Fox Studios.

Running time:

1 hour, 40 mins.

Parent's guide:

PG-13 (violence, adult themes, drug use and profanity)

Playing at:

area theaters

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at dhiltbrand@phillynews.com or 215-854-4552. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/daveondemand

.