|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 27 July 1999|
‘Payback,’ adapted from the novel ‘The Hunter’ by Richard Stark (a pen name for Donald Westlake), also served as the basis for ‘Point Blank.’ In the book, the anti-hero is Parker; in ‘Point Blank,’ he’s Walker (Lee Marvin); here, he’s Porter (Mel Gibson). No matter what he’s called, he remains an exceptionally tough, determined and violent customer.
We meet Porter as he’s being stitched up after a very nasty shooting incident in which he was left for dead. Upon recuperating, Porter heads back to his old turf to confront his assailants: his heroin-addicted wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) and his double-crossing partner Val (Gregg Henry). While Porter doesn’t precisely forgive Lynn, he doesn’t plan to kill her, either. Val is another matter, but he’s managed to weasel his way into the local syndicate with the $70,000 he stole from Porter (after the two of them stole it from other gangsters). Porter wants his revenge and he wants his money back. To this end, he works - or, more accurately, shoots, pummels and detonates - his way up the criminal food chain.
Aurally, ‘Payback’ is good but unspectacular, especially considering its high quotient of smashing glass, flying bullets and explosions. A head-on car collision in Chapter 3 and a mighty big bang in Chapter 17 are highlights, with an effective interplay between the sound effects and music score.
Visually, ‘Payback’ is one of the grayest-hued mainstream movies in ages. Even flashy Chicago looks washed-out, grimy and leached of color. This is not due to any aspect of the DVD transfer. Instead, it is an intentional aspect of the original theatrical release. Director/co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland achieves a look that matches the story’s intended moral tone. The plot in its essence seems like an updated Clint Eastwood western or something that Charles Bronson would have done in the ‘70s. However, the script by Helgeland and Terry Hayes does pause for grace notes of modern wit and irony. The continues bemusement of the bad guys as they size up their lone, truculent adversary are an amusingly low-key antidote to the overwrought snarling psychos that often show up in this genre. In ‘Payback,’ we get a sense that these Syndicate fellows might actually have enough sense to run a profitable business.
Helgeland has a healthy respect for conventions that work - he’s proficient at conceiving and staging action sequences, so that they pack a kick even if they don’t seem wildly original. Cinematographer Ericson Core’s relentlessly smoky, bleak images create an atmosphere of such bleary cynicism that the characters can afford some looseness, letting ‘Payback’ have some humor without turning into a cartoon.
The filmmakers wink at the audience, playing a game with our sympathies in which we’re practically dared to like Porter, who time and again has the stuffing beaten out of him so that we can cheer him on when he does worse to his enemies. ‘Payback’ is a little coy in this regard - if we weren’t meant to like Porter, he probably wouldn’t be played by Mel Gibson. There are moments when it seems we’re intended to find Porter’s actions a little more outrageous than they really are - yes, he’s angry and sadistic, but in movie terms, he’s been severely provoked. Viewers may not agree with Porter’s behavior, but those who don’t understand that his responses are appropriate within the crime-action genre are unlikely to see ‘Payback’ in the first place.
The ‘making-of’ featurette in the special features section seems designed more as promotion than information, since the interviews (interspersed with film clips) are almost entirely concerned with what we’re going to see, rather than how various shots and effects were achieved.
‘Payback’ is a bit meaner and crankier on its surface than the average action thriller, but it centers around a man who believes in loyalty, protects loved ones and doesn’t harm the innocent. If you like gunfights and car chases wrapped around a tight if unlikely narrative and can forgive the movie for pretending to be more ethically ambiguous than it really is, you’ll have a fine time.