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Payback

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 5 February 1999

  Directed by Brian Helgeland.

Starring Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello,
David Paymer, William Devane, James Coburn,
Deborah Kara Unger, Bill Duke, Jack Conley,
Lucy Alexis Liu, and Kris Kristofferson.

Written by Terry Hayes and Brian Helgeland,
based on the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake
(under the pseudonym Richard Stark).

No more Mr. Nice Guy! If you thought crime in the streets was a problem, wait till you take a gander at Payback, a violent, sadistic mess guaranteed a number one finish its opening weekend based on star Mel Gibson’s allure, yet tarnished by his Machiavellian intentions. Who says crime doesn’t pay! Don’t take a seat expecting to find any role models (and don’t bring the kids!), as all the characters in the film have a dark side, just a few being a lighter shade of gray. Debut director Brian Helgeland, who wrote the screenplay with a late rewrite by Terry Hayes (Dead Calm), has churned out scripts for the Oscar-winning hit L.A. Confidential (with Curtis Hanson) and Gibson’s lackluster Conspiracy Theory, as well as the Kevin Costner clunker The Postman (with Eric Roth). His graduation to hyphenate status here hasn’t been all that easy. Lethal Weapon 4, Gibson’s last release in mid-1998, was shot after Payback, but Gibson, also a producer here through his Icon Productions, disliked the director’s first cut. When Helgeland refused to honor the star’s request for re-shooting the film in Gibson’s vision, Helgeland left the project (although keeping his name on screen in lieu of the designated disgruntled pseudonym Alan Smithee). Reportedly, Mad Mel had nearly a third of the film replaced by an unidentified director (not John Boorman, who helmed a brilliant version of Westlake’s novel more than 30 years ago in the still enjoyable Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin in the Gibson role), forcing the picture to be moved off of last summer’s release schedule.

There must be an audience (beyond Mel’s adoring fans) for this type of punishment, namely over-weight liquor-guzzlers, gnarly chain-smokers, scum-sucking drug dealers (be careful with your nose ring!), crooked cops, slimy con men, and toe-crunching gangsters. Not that I’m prudish, being of a fan of Sam Peckinpah, Todd Solondz, and Quentin Tarantino, it’s just that I found Payback pointless.

As the film begins we find low-life scam artist/pickpocket Porter, our "hero," recovering from a near death experience courtesy of his double-crossing partner Val Resnick (Gregg Henry) and the adulterous Mrs. P (The Game’s Deborah Kara Unger) following the theft of $140,000 in laundered money from Chinese gangsters. An opening credit sequence shows Porter’s knack for deception and light-handedness. As he follows the money trail up the criminal food chain, he reconnects with Val, who used the cash to buy his way into "the syndicate," or is it "the outfit," a secret bad boy organization that seems lightheaded in protecting it’s executives. Dead bodies accumulate and the cast is decimated as the increasingly intimidating Porter manages to easily out-maneuver the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, leaving it to the audience to figure out his methods. Maybe it’s the Marine Corps tattoo on his arm that alludes to his cunning and ingenuity, or maybe it’s a case of bad screenwriting.

Joining Porter in his quest is ER’s Maria Bello as Rosie, a hooker with a heart of gold. She holds up the best in the film, protected by Porter the man and Porter the dog, and appears headed toward a future sequel as the story turns out (and if the grosses -- at the box office, that is -- are high enough). In that sense, the film seems like it’s written backwards, with the concept for Payback II left chained to a tenement radiator and hissing at Porter from a bullet-ridden car.

When the male audience isn’t holding their collective groin to protect it from Val and Asian girl friend/dominatrix Pearl’s sado-masochistic well-placed kicks and punches, the women are probably wondering why they’ve been dragged alone for this uneven ride, although Chris Boardman’s score adds a jazzy dimension to the noirish look filmed by cinematographer Ericson Core, a music video veteran.

Cast-wise, Ally McBeal’s Lucy Liu pushes the envelope in a breakthrough big-screen role, well above her litigious boob tube character Ling Woo. She’ll pop up later this year in Clint Eastwood’s True Crime. William Devane and an uncredited James Coburn are a pair of crime lieutenants answering to Kris Kristofferson (appropriately renamed Bronson, apparently in deference to master vigilante himself, Charles "Death Wish" Bronson). Underlings David Paymer, Bill Duke, and Jack Conley provide textured, but one-dimensional roles. And my condolences to John Glover, as one of the mob henchmen, on the sad demise of his role as the devil on the now-cancelled Fox series Brimstone. R.I.P.

Payback is not for the faint at heart. It’s a groin-wrenching, bone-crunching exercise in excess, pickled with an occasional good line or amusing piece of forced comic relief, which are more off-putting than welcomed. You’re more likely to emerge after nearly two hours counting your blessings (and your toes) that you made it through the loathsome ordeal of Payback.


Be sure to read KJ Doughton's review as well.


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