Man on Fire and Max Payne 3: The Success and Failure of Revenge

[Originally published July 25, 2016]

Given the 15th anniversary of the series, I decided to play through its least-discussed entry – the Rockstar Vancouver-developed Max Payne 3. I now see why nobody really talks about this game anymore, as it’s a bloated mess of poor narrative and level design. The game apes a lot of core elements from 2004’s Denzel Washington revenge thriller Man on Fire – a far superior piece. I thought I’d talk about revenge thrillers, why they work, and why Max Payne 3 didn’t.

The most important aspect of a revenge thriller is the victim. They will almost always be white women, as is the case in both MoF and MP3. The ubiquitous ‘captured/dead woman’ is an often sexist trope, as the victim primarily exists to become motivation for the hero – usually a husband/father/father figure – to go on their murderous rampage. The most amateurish revenge thrillers will invoke the ‘captured/dead woman’ clause right away – as is the case in MP3 – which is a move that prevents us from learning anything meaningful about either of our main narrative tools. Both the victim and the hero – and, most importantly, their relationship – is relegated to background fluff, existing only to pad the runtime with clunky expositional dialogue. Man on Fire is brilliant, in that the first 50 minutes of the film are spent establishing our two primary characters – played by Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning, respectively – and their relationship with one another. He’s a depressed drunk – the husk of the driven soldier he once was – and she’s a sharp-witted, mature-for-her-age girl struggling with her distant, wealthy parents. Denzel joins on as the bodyguard, and Dakota helps him with his depression and drinking. She loves him like a father, which gives him the drive to want to live again. Dakota grows as a character and person, finding the confidence in herself to stand up to her father and compete (and win) in swimming competitions – her true passion. This is a fleshed out, mutually beneficial relationship, and that’s why we’re so devastated when Dakota Fanning is eventually kidnapped.

We’re not devastated simply because we watch a young girl get taken away to face an awful fate – we’re devastated because we watch all the growth and improvement we’ve seen in both characters crumble away in an instant. Dakota is torn from a man who taught her how to have confidence in herself. Denzel is torn from a girl who helped show him how to be happy again. This is why we’re invested in the bloodshed that follows – audiences are most invested in relationships, not the hollow invocation of tropes. This is a lesson that Max Payne 3 could have benefited from.

There’s more characterization in those two paragraphs than what’s provided to players over the entire course of Max Payne 3. Rockstar Vancouver managed to water down two games worth of character writing and reduce Max to ‘drinks and does drugs and is mean.’ His victim counterpart fares even worse. She’s wealthy and cavalier. That’s about all she is, and Max hates her for it. He hates all of the people he works for. His relationship isn’t personal – not even a little bit. This is why it’s so strange that he drops everything to go on a one-man-rampage across Brazil upon the death of the woman. There’s no relationship for us to get invested in – not even an implied one. At least in Max Payne the dead women were his wife and daughter. There’s an implied relationship there – it’s why the ‘dead wife’ is one of the most overused tropes in revenge narratives. It’s a cheap, lazy, but characteristically consistent answer to ‘what’s my motivation?’ Max Payne 3 doesn’t even bother to that far. It just says ‘Max has been motivated by dead women before! Here’s a dead woman now. Kill everyone.’ And I do.

But not because I want to. I do it because the experience of linear play demands this from me. This is the crutch that games have to lean on – the feedback loop of play is often used to fill the void left by an absent narrative reward path. My brain can’t get its fix from the story, so it finds it elsewhere, within the realm of the mechanic.

But this is only the set up for ‘the revenge’ – we still have to talk about the pay off. Unfortunately, Max Payne 3 isn’t that great at developing the revenge arc of the narrative either. As a comparison, let’s take a look at the villains from Man on Fire and Max Payne 3, and see what ultimately happens to them.

Man on Fire:

  1. Dirty cop who assisted with kidnapping: fingers cut off, shot in head, car driven off cliff, car explodes.
  2. Three nightclub owners who store the children: first shot in the stomach with shotgun. Second forced to beg for his life and say goodbye to picture of Dakota Fanning, shot in the heart with a pistol. Third is spared, but put into police custody after having been thoroughly traumatized.
  3. Dirty head of the Police Anti-Kidnapping Division: captured, tortured, sexually humiliated. Forced to confess and then blown up with C4 inserted into his rectum.
  4. Samuel Ramos’ (Dakota Fanning’s character’s father) dirty lawyer: beheaded off-screen with a katana. We see his headless body floating in his swimming pool.
  5. Samuel Ramos: outed in front of his wife as cohort of kidnappers. Belittled for failed attempt to get kidnapping insurance money. Given a gun with one bullet. Takes own life after his wife very legitimately threatens to murder him.
  6. Aurelio Sanchez, brother of kidnapping mogul: survives, but severely injured in car crash. Also, gets the fingers from his left hand blown off by sawn-off shotgun.

And Finally…

7. Daniel Sanchez a.k.a. The Voice: the mastermind behind the kidnappings: shot in the head for ‘resisting arrest.’

Max Payne 3:

  1. Head of the Commando Sombra: survives after having been traumatized off-screen at an organ-stealing clinic. Appears for a little over two minutes of screen time.
  2. Head of the Crachá Preto: shot in the head as a Deus Ex Machina after less than a minute of screentime.
  3. 2nd in command of the UFE: shot in the head after less than a minute of screentime (not counting his dialogue-less boss fight).
  4. Head of the UFE: shot in the head or left to die of grotesque grenade wounds (player’s choice) after less than a minute of screen time.
  5. Victor Branco, mastermind behind the whole plot: broken leg, ‘hangs himself’ in prison.


So the first observation you might have is that the deaths in Man on Fireare far more creative. Yes, true, but there’s more to the differences here besides the craven catharsis of watching evil men get their just desserts. Every villain in Max Payne 3 is the head of an organization, sans the one second in command. Their inclusion as faceless stand-ins for entire corporate-military entities means that they can not, will not, will neverhave personalities. Their careless introduction and elimination – often occurring mere moments apart from one another – also serves to diminish any chance we had to give a shit that these men were dying. Man on Fire would rather take us up the ‘corporate ladder’ of cartel kidnappings, taking time to characterize both the villains and their organization. MoF also takes care that ‘characterization’ never quite becomes ‘humanization,’ either – as the best revenge tales are devoid of sympathy for its villains.

Rockstar Vancouver fundamentally misunderstands that a good revenge story cultivates a love of our heroes and a hate for our enemies. They’re more concerned with these hollow invocations of storytelling tropes than they are with understanding the theoretical care that goes into approaching them. Human beings want relationships – friendships, romances, animal companionship, virtual companionship, etc. This is why we’re drawn to drama – drama is, at its core, about relationships. Revenge comes from the destruction of drama, but especially when the destruction bears significant relation to said drama. Downton Abbeywouldn’t make for a good revenge story if a random tourist started to stab (or shoot? Did they have guns in Downton’s era? I don’t watch the show) the inhabitants of Downton Abbey. Man on Fire knows how to heighten both the drama and revenge elements of its plot, while Max Payne 3 understands neither.

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