Parents in the 1980s wagged their fingers at their kids for getting figuratively sucked into video games. But maybe if more of those kids literally got sucked into video games, they’d have found them less compelling. That’s one theme for the new Scott Adkins VOD action movie Max Cloud, which has a player getting pulled into a game, Tron-style, and finding some embarrassing truths behind the big, familiar escapist tropes.
Game protagonist Max Cloud is the self-proclaimed hero of his own narrative: He’s the pilot of an intergalactic space cruiser, with a Greek god’s physique and a cocksure attitude earned through ferocious fighting prowess. Why wouldn’t he feel at least a little smug? But his ego is a smog enveloping his supporting ensemble, who he looks down on as mortal losers without appreciating the roles they play in his victories, or realizing they have more depth than him. “Kick ass first, ask questions if there are survivors” isn’t a replacement for a personality.
Granted, Max and his team are all 2D characters in a fictional side-scrolling beat-’em-up game, modeled after late-’80s and early-’90s properties like Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, and Battletoads. These were the games we played before the industry started taking character development and storytelling substance seriously. Director Martin Owen wraps Max Cloud around the central joke that Max’s arrogance is so all-consuming that both his game and his film bear his name by default. The real hero of Owen’s screenplay, co-written with Sally Collett, is Sarah (Isabelle Allen), a gaming enthusiast who just wants to spend the weekend playing the Max Cloud game with her best friend Cowboy (Attack the Block’s Franz Drameh). But her plans are dashed by her strict dad, Tony (Sam Hazeldine), who forbids her from playing.
Sarah defies him, of course, which ends poorly when she makes a wish heard by game NPC Space Witch (Jason Maza), who uses his intergalactic sorcery to yank her into the game as Jake (Elliot James Langridge), the chef aboard Max’s ship. To keep her alive, Cowboy has to take the controller and play the best he’s ever played in his life, while Sarah/Jake gets an up-close taste of Max’s obnoxiousness as a person instead of as a remote-operated game PC. Meanwhile, the whole gang has to avoid incursions by the game’s end boss, Revengor (John Hannah), and his number two, Shee (Lashana Lynch), whose sinister plot involves a one-way trip to Earth for, obviously, revenge. (Revengor is nefarious, but apparently at the expense of creativity.)
Max Cloud follows in the tradition of movies like Tron, The Thirteenth Floor, Jumanji, and to different extents Virtuosity and Ready Player One, where a flesh-and-blood protagonist, whether by misfortune or choice, is warped into a dangerous digital world. Real life being a zero-sum game, Sarah’s realization her life is on the line, which is as much a buzzkill as her realization that every time she’s selected Max as her avatar, she’s unwittingly selected a misogynist pig redeemed only by his S-tier combat skills. Swarmed by space ninjas aboard their inoperable ship, Max goes sickhouse on them with moves straight out of The Raid, rendered deceptively cartoonish through the gaming medium. He pins baddies to ceilings with knives to the chin, decapitates them with closing doors, or slashes them to ribbons. “I scared them off,” Max roars after one such melee, “with an act of pure violence!”
Every year, it seems that action cinema goes on the Adkins diet: the genre’s arguably hardest-working star keeps churning out production after production while popping up in the occasional franchise picture. In 2016 alone, he appeared in seven movies, including Doctor Strange, and in 2020, he added another five credits to his name. Max is an exaggerated version of Adkins’ persona, brash and brutal. But he harbors a less prototypically manly aspiration: The guy loves baking delicious sugary treats. Who’d have guessed? Max’s career path toward military glory provides cloud cover for a far more sensitive soul, although he’s a soul capable of delivering beatings so savage that they make his allies blanch.
Adkins is hilarious as the two faces of Max Cloud, and a solid foil to Hannah as he bides his time Jazzercising and playing what looks like a riff on Battleship. Gaming is a form of escapist fantasy, and Max Cloud consciously pops the balloon on that fantasy with its look behind the scenes at a Big Bad whose real name is Jeremy, and a hero who’d be happier proofing dough and mixing batter. (Incidentally, that would make a nice subgame if somebody bothered to actually create a real-world playable version of Max Cloud.)
Owen frames his candy-coated alien backdrop, heavily stylized action, and goofy in-joke humor through Sarah and Cowboy’s eyes, though Cowboy’s perspective is more distant from the drama. What works so well about Max Cloud is the decision to cast the co-lead as male and the lead as female, in part because the plot hangs on chauvinism, and the clarity of a woman’s gaze feels necessary. But the gender distinction is refreshing largely because in most movies like this, Cowboy would be the presumed protagonist. In Max Cloud, it’s Sarah (even though her game avatar is a dude) and Rexy (Collett), Max’s long-suffering commander, who’s bored with his nonsense — and may be another real person in Sarah’s predicament.
Owen captures the fun of the gaming genre the movie bases itself on, and has a blast teasing the style’s sillier conventions, like ducking down to fool enemies into inactivity. But without spoiling either Max Cloud’s action or its comedy, Owen makes the running gag about Max’s macho bluster into some of the sharpest gaming criticism released this year. Max Cloud is a punchier title for a game than Sarah, no doubt. But characters like Sarah — and for that matter, Jake and Rexy — are as crucial to a satisfying gaming experience as big bruiser types like Max. They’re the characters most of us will identify with, the ones we care most about for reasons other than their gifts for violent excesses. And as such, they’re the characters who make us care about games as something other than colorful diversions. After all, they make Max Cloud a fully satisfying moviegoing experience.