Synopsis: Get Ready to Root for the Bad Guy.
Mel Gibson “gives one of his strongest performances,” teaming with his co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland and a superb supporting cast to ignite Payback’s explosive mix of story, stars and style.
The dynamic superstar portrays Porter, a career criminal bent on revenge after his partners in a street heist pump metal into him and take off with his $70,000 cut. Bad move, thugs. Because if you plan to double-cross Porter, you’d better make sure he’s dead. Porter resurfaces, wading into a lurid urban underworld of syndicate kingpins, cops on the take, sniveling informants and deadly gangs. Porter wants his money back. And the way he sets out to get it assures that, from beginning to heartpounding end, Payback pays off big.
eyelights: its basic concept. Porter’s tenacity. Lucy Liu.
eyesores: Mel Gibson’s “crazy” act. its Hollywood ending.
“Not many people know what their life’s worth is. I do. Seventy grand. That’s what they took from me. And that’s what I was going to get back.”
I’m a big fan of Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker books. Although there are only four of them, and I’ve only read three, they remain omnipresent in my memory as some of the best books I’ve read in recent years. So it’s with great excitement that I discovered that there were motion picture adaptations too.
‘Payback’ is one of them.
Based on ‘The Hunter’, which was both adapted by Darwyn Cooke and which also served as the source material for ‘Point Blank‘, this 1999 Mel Gibson vehicle is noted for being Brian Helgeland’s directorial debut. As one of the last palatable Gibson films, I had watched it two or three times before – not knowing anything of its pedigree. Now I had to see it again.
In this iteration, Parker is called Porter (it was Walker in ‘Point Blank’). But the gist remains the same: After stealing a cash delivery from an Asian gang, he was double-crossed by his partner, Val, and his spouse, Lynn (as retribution for cheating on her). After five months to heal from his gunshot wounds (some which are disturbingly close to his spine), he’s back.
And he wants his share of the loot: 70,000$.
Nothing will stop him from getting it.
The whole movie plays like a revenge story, with Porter slowly tracking Val down (bashing his way to him, really), and then moving on to his bosses when Val is unable to comply with his request. It’s simplistic and that’s what makes it so satisfying: we’re watching an extremely focused individual literally pound his way to his goal – just like we’d sometimes like to.
And when he gets harassed by crooked cops (who don’t believe he would go to all this trouble for just 70K) and want a cut of this “BIG” payout he’s after, he sets them up. And when The Outfit (the criminal organization that Val betrayed him for) goes after him for daring to mess with their affairs, he completely shrugs it off – no one will stop him from getting his money.
This leads to an amusing recurring gag in which people think he’s asking for 130,000$ – the full payout to The Outfit. Porter corrects them every time, rolling his eyes with impatience; he’s only out for what’s due to him – no more, no less. I also get a kick out of watching this pugnacious cockroach smash his way through it all; it’s so outrageous it’s nearly slap-stick.
Still, despite its nearly cartoonish quality, the violence can be hard to swallow at times. For instance, there’s a scene in which Porter gets caught and is brutally tortured. It’s so visceral that it’s pretty much the first thing I think about when ‘Payback’ comes to mind; it’s unforgettable. It’s very difficult to know what was meant to be realistic and what is exploitative here.
Some of the key performances, however, suggest that the film was intended to be cartoonish:
- Mel Gibson, for instance, does his best Martin Riggs “crazy”, with all the googly eyes and grimacing that comes along with this, but it’s tired and too much this time. What somewhat distinguishes the two characters, however, is just how extremely unscrupulous Porter is: the ends justify the means and no societal rules register on his radar. In some ways it’s liberating because Riggs felt restrained. Still, as entertaining as Gibson is, I preferred Lee Marvin’s cold-as-concrete professionalism.
- Gregg Henry plays Val Resnick really loose, sort of like Dennis Hopper in his most hopped up days. It’s not a bad choice, because it makes him feel slightly unpredictable, but it’s also hard to treat him with any real seriousness.
- Lucy Liu plays a dominatrix that Val has hired. Her character is completely over the top, and is only slightly less cartoony than Xenia Onatopp: she is a sadist who slaps, punches, and utterly delights in causing pain – and sometimes receiving it. She is unforgettable. But c’mon! She’s there for laughs. Still Liu owns the part: She is AMAZING. And so, so very HOT.
The rest of the contingent (which includes none other than James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Maria Bello, Deborah Kara Unger, William Devane, David Paymer and many others) are all top notch and frequently play it dead serious (especially Coburn, Kristofferson and Devane, as Outfit bosses). Again, it’s hard to know what the filmmakers’ intentions were.
Where the picture really stumbles, though, is in giving Porter some sort of hackneyed redeeming quality; even though he’s a brutal beast, somehow he finds a love interest in a high end call girl he once used to drive around. He also gets to save the girl, and look all heroic doing it, plus he gets a Hollywood ending. The cherry on top? A dog survives a point blank gunshot wound.
The final hick in this otherwise vastly entertaining picture is the soundtrack. For some reason, the producers went with a throwback soundtrack of late ’60s/early ’70s tracks (and some crooning to seal the deal). It’s already hard to define when this film takes place, devoid as it is of clear indicators, but this only seems to confuse things more – and add an element of kitsch.
It needs to be said that the film, as released in 1999, is NOT the version intended by Brian Helgeland. Concerned with the grimness of the piece, the studio took control of the film and had a third of it reshot, completely overhauling it – including the script. A Director’s Cut, which attempts to right many of its missteps. has since been produced and released on home video.
And yet, for all its flaws and its studio interference, I rather enjoy ‘Payback’. I love its grittiness, pitch black humour and even its inky look. It’s a killer movie about a stone cold killer – and sometimes that hits the mark (although, truth be told, this was the time I liked it the least). I am very curious to find out how much of an improvement the director’s cut is.
We may soon find out.
Date of viewing: February 7, 2016