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Payback

Review by KJ Doughton
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).

The best scene in Mel Gibson’s latest action vehicle, Payback, involves his determined character Porter demanding money from a crime syndicate boss played by James Coburn. Coburn plays a dapper, appearance-conscious mobster lugging alligator-skinned suitcases after returning home from vacation. After he refuses to pay the money, Porter shoots his costly luggage full of holes. "Hey, stop that!", protests Coburn, turning from vicious crime patriarch to sensitive victim. "Shooting a man’s luggage -- that’s just plain mean."

It’s a funny scene from a movie that could have benefited from this lighter touch more often. However, it’s sandwiched in between the antics of a sadomasochistic double-crosser who disdainfully tosses a woman across a room before threatening, "I’m gonna screw you seven ways from Sunday", and a crime syndicate’s tendency to use a sledgehammer to the toes as an information-extracting method. The change in tone seems jarring. And when it’s slathered in green and blue tones that make the viewer wonder if something didn’t go dreadfully wrong during the final development process, Payback comes across as cheap and ugly -- a second-string Mel movie.

Payback opens with a number of scenes designed to set Porter up as an unsympathetic antihero. His junkie wife, played by Deborah Kara Unger, shoots him in the back following a heist in which she and his accomplice Val (Gregg Henry) make off with the loot in a cold double-cross, leaving Porter for dead. After a sleazy doctor offers him a swig of whiskey and removes the bullets, Porter is out hustling, rebounding, and waiting for the right time to extract revenge and reclaim his dough. In an introductory collage of scenes, he’s seen stealing credit cards to buy suave suits, and robbing a street beggar of his money-filled hat. He’s remorseless and hardboiled, a typical film noir antihero whom you admire for his ruthless self-sufficiency while wincing at his means to such a self-serving end.

The remainder of the movie follows Porter on his single-minded quest to retrieve $70,000, his share of the heist money. He discovers his wife strung out on heroin: when her dealer comes calling, Porter convinces him to hand over information on Val’s whereabouts by plucking out a nose ring. A few frames later, he’s putting a bullet through the head of Val, whom Porter learns has handed over all the money over to an oily crime syndicate in an effort to buy his way in. Then the scene is set for Gibson’s greenback-motivated scuzzball to confront the mobsters and insist on the punctual return of his $70,000. One by one, he works his way up the hierarchy of syndicate overlords. Does he get his money? Can Mad Max drive a tanker through a gauntlet of mohawked thugs?

Payback has a lot of typical Gibson-movie staples, the most obvious being a masochistic torture scene in which Mel demonstrates that mutilation is the best prerequisite to success. In Mad Max, Gibson’s family was run down by a group of vicious post-apocalyptic bikers; in the film’s sequel, he’s run off the road by another group of hot-rodding thugs, which then kills his dog with a crossbow. In Lethal Weapon, he’s electrocuted by Gary Busey, and in Braveheart, he’s disemboweled in a public Gibson-gutting that one would think might put a cap on this tired tradition. But he ups the ante here, with a scene involving a sledgehammer applied to his toes. Unless he reverts to hack comedy mode and churns out more films like Bird on a Wire, anticipate a Gibson decapitation or chainsaw demise coming to a theater near you in the future.

The thing that’s most fun about PayBack is its cast of supporting characters. Most of them have played unsympathetic sadists in past seventies crime melodramas, but they’ve been relatively mute during the current decade. To see them parading through a late-nineties flick like this conjures forth nostalgic, if not altogether pleasant, memories of past neo noir appearances. William Devane plays an underwritten upper-rung syndicate crook much like the one he played in Marathon Man, where he was in cahoots with Laurence Olivier’s torturous Nazi dentist. His shady face and oversized teeth ooze menace. Ditto for John Glover, whose unkempt bomb-planter harks back to the crazed pornographer and blackmailer he played in 1986’s 52 Pickup. Gregg Henry’s initiation into Hollywood crime capers started with his appearance as a U.S. politician offering government assist to a Colombian drug overlord in Brian DePalma’s Scarface remake. Other seventies mainstays Coburn and Kris Kristofferson also make appearances as nineties-style creeps.

However, this parade of "where are they now" film faces is about the only thing interesting about Payback. Gibson’s strength has always been the unbridled enthusiasm he throws into his roles. In this movie, he’s restrained and emotionally detached. This might be the idea, but in the end, Porter’s payback seems matter-of-fact and unimportant, when compared to the cathartic release of a Martin Riggs going ballistic or a William Wallace dodging arrows. Meanwhile, the combination of sadism and understated humor doesn’t flow the way it did in such Elmore Leonard-inspired crime outings as Get Shorty and Jackie Brown. Add the godawful blue-green tint that shrouds each frame of Payback, and you’re left with the experience of watching a faded seventies crime video: ugly to look at, and familiar in content. Save yourself some money and rent the real deal instead (preferably John Boorman’s late sixties classic Point Blank, which, like Payback, based its story on the novel "The Hunter", by Richard Stark).


Be sure to read Elias Savada's review as well.


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