As much fun as Mel Gibson can be when he gleefully sinks his teeth intogoofball roles like Martin Riggs and Brett Maverick, I've always likedhim best when he plays darker anti-heroes, and Porter, the double-crossedcon out for revenge in "Payback," is about as unheroic as a guycan get and still be an action movie protagonist.
This dude isn't without his integrity, but he definitelydoesn't give a damn about anybody. He'll clock a homeless guy for his $3in cash without feeling a twinge and he'll rip the nose ring out of somestupid punk drug dealer just as soon as look at him.
But what he really wants to do is get the $70,000 owedhim by the Doberman-faced Val (Gregg Henry), an ex-partner who stole hiscut of a heist, shot him twice in the back and left him for dead sevenmonths ago. And if Porter gets to even a few scores along the way, so muchthe better.
Val used the money to buy his way back into The Syndicateand 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-corsetedmistress (Lucy Liu). Val is shocked to see him, but he's even more shockedwhen Porter lets the hooker get a thrill by beating the snot out of himwhile 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 genrethat takes place in a brutish world where even the girlfriends are chiseled,unsmiling bruisers, and people die in exploding cars while bystanders takeno notice.
Mostly directed by Brian Helgeland (writer of Gibson's"Conspiracy Theory" and the "L.A.Confidential" screenplay) -- I'll explainthe "mostly" in a minute -- "Payback" is photographedin steel blue hues to give it the gritty look of cheap film stock, andeverything 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 followsPorter as he kicks down doors on his way up the mafia food chain, demandingof each bigger fish the $70,000 he's owed. The chain of command progressesfrom William Devane to James Coburn (in an uncredited role) to Kris Kristofferson,all played with delicious aplomb in three of the best mob tough performancesI've ever seen outside a Scorsese movie. (Great torture scene threat: "I'llgive you a blood transfusion to keep you alive if I have to!")
It's a running gag that the mafiosos assume there's moreto Porter's game and he has to reiterate time and again that he just wantshis 70 grand and nothing more, even after he runs afoul of a pair of crookedcops who oblige him to collect a quarter million instead and share it withthem.
Although Gibson is saddled with some hard-boiled clichesin his callous voice over, he gives a great, stoic performance and neverseems even tempted to hold back on the bad guy thing.
However, there were "creative differences" betweenstar 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, thealterations are easy to spot (one character is wildly out of place) andthe film looses its terrific unpredictability once these changes kick in.
But ultimately the resulting payoff is worth enduring afew hackneyed spins on the story, which I'm told (bad movie critic, I didn'tdo 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'svery well directed. I especially liked the narrative structure that letsthe audience do a lot of thinking for themselves.
"Payback" is a pretty brutal film at times andI 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'sson), that's really my only complaint.
Run time: 100 mins
In Theaters: Friday 5th February 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $161.6M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Icon Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 54%
Fresh: 40 Rotten: 34
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Mel Gibson as Porter, Kris Kristofferson as Bronson, Gregg Henry as Val Resnick, Maria Bello as Rosie, David Paymer as Arthur Stegman, Bill Duke as Det. Hicks, Deborah Kara Unger as Mrs. Lynn Porter, John Glover as Phil, William Devane as Carter, Lucy Liu as Pearl, Jack Conley as Det. Leary
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