Payback (1999)

Payback (1999)
  • Time: 100 min
  • Genre: Action | Crime | Drama
  • Director: Brian Helgeland
  • Cast: Mel Gibson, Deborah Kara Unger, Kris Kristofferson


What was supposed to be a routine robbery turns into a double cross when Porter’s wife and his best friend shoot him and leave him for dead. But things take a turn for the bizarre when Porter recuperates seeking revenge for the money he was swiped out of. Only to learn that the money is now in the hands of a crime organization. He’s determined to get the money back and his many encounters include his less than likeable ex-partner, a sniveling crook, two corrupt cops, a brutal dominatrix, and one very lethal crime boss.

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  • Porter’s (Mel Gibson) been shot. In the back. By his pal Val (Gregg Henry) and his own doublecrossing wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger). Over 70 grand. That’s right, 70 grand. “That’s what they took from me and that’s what I was going to get back,” Porter vows.

    The 70 grand was his share off a job he and Val pulled on some Chinese criminals. There’s a clan called the Syndicate — or the Outfit, as its members keep insisting — and Val needs about 130 grand to pay off his debts to them. He tells Porter they each stand to make that much off the Chinese job but when they divvy up the till, it’s only half that. Oh, well. “Always be grateful for what you get. Rule number one, Val,” Porter says. But Val has other plans. He wants the money, he wants Porter’s wife and he wants Porter out of the way. But the bang-bang doesn’t quite finish Porter off.

    Five months pass. Time may heal all wounds but it doesn’t do a thing for principles. Porter wants his share. No more, no less. To find the money, he’s got to find Val. Which isn’t going to be easy. Leads from lowlifes like Stegman (David Paymer) guide Porter to new enemies like Detectives Hicks (Bill Duke) and Leary (Jack Conley), two crooked cops who want a huge slice of the 70 grand; and to old flame Rosie (Maria Bello), who’s also part of the Outfit. The Outfit itself, run by the holy trinity of Carter (William Devane), Fairfax (James Coburn) and Bronson (Kris Kristofferson), isn’t about to let Porter deprive them of the money Val rightfully remitted. But Porter has time and he has patience and enough bullets and smarts to bide it out.

    The excellent Payback comes to theaters with a bit of behind-the-scenes turmoil. It began as a Richard Stark novel The Hunter, which served as the basis for John Boorman’s 1967 noir classic Point Blank starring Lee Marvin. (Boorman is none too pleased with the idea of remaking Point Blank though he notes that he deviated significantly from the novel so that he could tailor the film to Marvin’s personality.) Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) adapted Stark’s novel along with Terry Hayes; their adaptation attracted Gibson who was in the midst of shooting Conspiracy Theory, a film whose screenplay Helgeland penned. Gibson hired Helgeland to direct Payback; the first-time director’s original cut wasn’t to Gibson’s satisfaction. Helgeland refused to direct new scenes that Gibson scripted and voluntarily stepped down when another director was hired to shoot the scenes. According to the January issue of Premiere, the new scenes comprise about 30 percent of the finished version.

    How Helgeland’s original vision could be any tougher or darker is beyond comprehension for Payback in its current form is a film of unrelenting ultraviolence. Fingers are crushed, toes are hammered, body piercings are yanked, bodies are battered and bruised. And let’s not even talk about the violence that acts as an aphrodisiac for Val and his dominatrix mistress Pearl, played to the hilt by Lucy Liu (better known as Ally McBeal’s litigation-happy Ling Woo). These two engage in a display of sexual sadomasochism that is both camp and thrillingly perverse. In one instance, Pearl even offers to torture Val for Porter. When Val slugs her back, Porter points a gun to his head and says, “Let her work.”

    Helgeland, who did a superb adaptation of L.A. Confidential, knows his noirs. The romance between high-priced call girl Rosie and Porter takes on the bittersweet weariness that prevails in the genre’s most resonant couplings. “You could have asked me to quit,” she tells him when he reveals it was the morning he drove her to one of her clients that led him to break off their relationship. “You could have asked me to drive somewhere else.” And later when he finally lets his guard down: “I just had to see you to make sure I wasn’t in hell.” Gibson delivers this line beautifully — the pain, the fatigue, the sliver of hope are all in that low rumble of a voice. What a performance as well. No Martin Riggs’ lampoonishness here — Porter is a dogged, stoic, uncaring son of a bitch.

    Payback has a wonderfully stylized look courtesy of cinematographer Ericson Core. There’s a haunting image of a doped-up Lynn tottering towards her apartment, the straps of her high heels trailing along the floor. The finale builds to a punishingly taut climax — credit Kevin Stitt’s no-frills but pulse-pounding editing. Among the crisp supporting cast, Devane oozes reptilian charm, Kristofferson exudes a grizzled and dangerous sexiness, and Coburn is ferociously funny. He gets the film’s best line. When Porter shoots through an alligator case Fairfax favors, Coburn utters indignantly, “Now that’s just mean!”

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