Courtesy Photo
*** stars 104 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, February 5, 1999
Directed by Brian Helgeland

Starring Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, David Paymer, Deborah Kara Unger, William Devane, Kris Kristofferson & James Coburn (uncredited)


The dark, hostile visual imagery is important in setting the mood for this big budget version of a '70s-style revenge fantasy flick, so I recommend getting it in letterbox for full impact. On the small screen, however, it may seem like just another Superstation rerun of a 25-year-old cheapy with better photography.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 7/27/99

Gibson goes gruff in dark, '70s style revenge fantasy "Payback"

By Rob Blackwelder

As much fun as Mel Gibson can be when he gleefully sinks his teeth into goofball roles like Martin Riggs and Brett Maverick, I've always liked him best when he plays darker anti-heroes, and Porter, the double-crossed con out for revenge in "Payback," is about as unheroic as a guy can get and still be an action movie protagonist.

This dude isn't without his integrity, but he definitely doesn't give a damn about anybody. He'll clock a homeless guy for his $3 in cash without feeling a twinge and he'll rip the nose ring out of some stupid punk drug dealer just as soon as look at him.

But what he really wants to do is get the $70,000 owed him by the Doberman-faced Val (Gregg Henry), an ex-partner who stole his cut of a heist, shot him twice in the back and left him for dead seven months ago. And if Porter gets to even a few scores along the way, so much the better.

Val used the money to buy his way back into The Syndicate and a life of velvet robes, gold chains and kinky, expensive prostitutes, and Porter first busts in on him during an S&M session with a leather-corseted mistress (Lucy Liu). Val is shocked to see him, but he's even more shocked when Porter lets the hooker get a thrill by beating the snot out of him while Porter asks questions. There's some pretty dark humor in this flick.

And make no mistake -- this is a flick. A combustible, leathery, big budget take the coarse, 1970s crime and revenge fantasy genre that takes place in a brutish world where even the girlfriends are chiseled, unsmiling bruisers, and people die in exploding cars while bystanders take no notice.

Mostly directed by Brian Helgeland (writer of Gibson's "Conspiracy Theory" and the "L.A. Confidential" screenplay) -- I'll explain the "mostly" in a minute -- "Payback" is photographed in steel blue hues to give it the gritty look of cheap film stock, and everything from the camera movement to the funk-inspired score has a heavy '70s influence, although the film takes place in no set time or place.

After being told Val can't get his money, story follows Porter as he kicks down doors on his way up the mafia food chain, demanding of each bigger fish the $70,000 he's owed. The chain of command progresses from William Devane to James Coburn (in an uncredited role) to Kris Kristofferson, all played with delicious aplomb in three of the best mob tough performances I've ever seen outside a Scorsese movie. (Great torture scene threat: "I'll give you a blood transfusion to keep you alive if I have to!")

It's a running gag that the mafiosos assume there's more to Porter's game and he has to reiterate time and again that he just wants his 70 grand and nothing more, even after he runs afoul of a pair of crooked cops who oblige him to collect a quarter million instead and share it with them.

Although Gibson is saddled with some hard-boiled cliches in his callous voice over, he gives a great, stoic performance and never seems even tempted to hold back on the bad guy thing.

However, there were "creative differences" between star and director that resulted in Helgeland leaving the picture in post-production, and changes were clearly made by Gibson. If you're looking for them, the alterations are easy to spot (one character is wildly out of place) and the film looses its terrific unpredictability once these changes kick in.

But ultimately the resulting payoff is worth enduring a few hackneyed spins on the story, which I'm told (bad movie critic, I didn't do my research!) only vaguely resembles the book on which it was based ("The Hunter" by Richard Stark) or the previous movie version, John Boorman's "Point Blank."

But it's clear most of the film is Helgeland's and it's very well directed. I especially liked the narrative structure that lets the audience do a lot of thinking for themselves.

"Payback" is a pretty brutal film at times and I could have done with more of the violence being implied rather than shown, but other than the dreadfully out of place character (an uber-preppie mobster's son), that's really my only complaint.


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