February 5, 1999 | In Payback, Brian Helgeland's unstable mixture of hard-boiled posing, heavy-duty violence and jet-black comedy, Mel Gibson plays a bad guy who runs afoul of worse guys while trying to recover his share of stolen loot. The movie is a mess, but it has its moments.
Gibson plays Porter -- no first name, just Porter -- who first appears on screen while lying atop the examination table of a doctor you wouldn't trust with your pet hamster. We quickly learn that Porter is a professional thief who made an amateurish blunder, and wound up with a few bullets in his back. As he explains in voice-over narration, he can't be too choosy about who tends to his wounds: "It's hard for guys in my line of work to get what I'd call quality health care."
On the other hand, it's very easy for fellows with Porter's particular expertise to get back into the swim of things after an extended time-out. In the movie's funniest sequence, our newly recovered anti-hero picks a few pockets, uses some stolen credit cards, and brings the expensive purchases to a seedy pawn shop. That's all it takes for a penniless Porter to transform himself into a well-dressed and heavily-armed avenger. If you snipped out the part that shows him lifting someone else's wallet, the sequence would make a dandy American Express commercial.
Once Porter is ready for action, however, Payback quickly devolves into a routine revenge drama that is unusual only for the tunnel-vision of its vengeance-seeker. Porter wants to find Lynn (Deborah Karen Unger), his double-crossing, drug-addicted wife, and Val (Gregg Henry), his treacherous ex-partner in crime, to recover $70,000 -- his half of the money that he and Val stole from Chinese mobsters. After the heist, Val and Lynn shot Porter and left him for dead. Weirdly enough, however, Porter is obsessed with the money, not the mayhem. He plans to get his hands on the $70,000, by fair means or foul. Killing his betrayers is, at best, a secondary concern, if not a fringe benefit.
Indeed, Porter is so intensely determined to recover his "fair" share of the loot that he's more than willing to tangle with the underworld higher-ups in the nameless city where Payback takes place. Val confesses that he used all of the stolen money to pay his way into the local crime syndicate known as The Outfit. Undeterred, Porter simply follows the loot through several layers of gangland bureaucracy, pressing his demands on Outfit overlords played by William Devane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson.
Just about everybody makes the mistake of underestimating Porter. Hardy anybody is left standing when the closing credits appear.
If the plot seems extremely familiar, maybe it's because you've seen, or heard about, Point Blank, John Boorman's ferociously stylized 1967 thriller starring Lee Marvin as the single-minded anti-hero. (The spooky thing about Boorman's movie is its hint that, maybe, Marvin has literally risen from the dead for revenge.) Like Point Blank, Payback is based on The Hunter, a novel by Richard Stark -- well, OK, a novel by Donald E. Westlake writing under the pseudonym of Richard Stark -- that is one of several Stark/Westlake books about a tough customer known simply as Parker.
The makers of Payback would doubtless insist that their film is not, strictly speaking, a remake. But it's almost impossible to avoid unflattering comparisons. Point Blank is by far the better movie, and not simply because Lee Marvin could look more menacing merely by walking across a room than Mel Gibson manages to appear with a gun in either hand. For all its excesses, Boorman's film has a masterfully sustained consistency of tone. In sharp contrast, Payback is all over the place.
One minute, it's a smart-mouthed caper flick with a rude sense of humor. (While Porter pummels an adversary, the soundtrack swells with Dean Martin's rendition of "Ain't That a Kick in the Head.") A few scenes later, the movie is an artfully gloom-and-doomy neo-noir thriller, complete with a shady lady (E.R. alumna Maria Bello as a high-gloss hooker) who may or may not be trustworthy.
Still later, Payback is a sadomasochistic fantasy of he-man fortitude, with a lead character who keeps his mouth closed even while a captor applies a sledgehammer to his bare foot. (There's something positively creepy about the way Mel Gibson gravitates toward scripts with torture scenes.) And then there are assorted bits and pieces that suggest an even more violent version of the movie existed before a mad rush of last-minute re-cutting and reshooting.
Directed and co-written by Brian Helgeland, the Oscar-winning co-screenwriter of L.A. Confidential, Payback is nothing if not stylish. The harshly-lit, color-drained cinematography evokes the gritty ambiance of black-and-white '50s crime melodramas, while the props and production design suggest that everything is taking place in some sort of timeless, movie-manufactured alternative universe. (Note how everyone still uses rotary telephones.) Gibson cracks wise and cracks heads with equal gusto. And the supporting players -- including Lucy Liu of Ally McBeal as an exuberant dominatrix -- get into the spirit of things without too much obvious winking at the audience.
None of this makes Payback any less of a mess. But the movie can be enjoyed as flashy trash if you're in a sufficiently decadent frame of mind.