July 2024

Payback (1999)

DIRECTOR: Brian Helgeland

CAST: Mel Gibson, Maria Bello, Gregg Henry, William Devane, James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Lucy Liu, David Paymer, Bill Duke, Jack Conley, John Glover, Deborah Kara Unger


Payback, from director and co-writer Brian Helgeland (Oscar-winning screenwriter of 1997’s LA Confidential in his directorial debut) is a deliciously hard-boiled crime caper and an ode to film noir.  It’s actually more-or-less a remake of John Boorman’s 1967 Point Blank, and both films are based on Richard Stark’s novel The Hunter, but Payback has enough style and personality to stand on its own as an engaging 100 minutes that serves up a noir-esque narrative, supplies a lineup of colorful characters, gives Mel Gibson some juicy one-liners to chew on, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

The tagline for Payback was “get ready to root for the bad guy”, and indeed professional robber Porter (Mel Gibson) is not a nice man.  But he’s been screwed over by worse people, namely his ex-partner Val Reznick (Gregg Henry) who, in cahoots with Porter’s drug-addled wife (Deborah Kara Unger), betrays him after a robbery they pulled off together, absconding with $140,000 and leaving Porter bullet-riddled and empty-handed.  But a few months later, Porter turns up like a bad penny with two things on his mind: revenge on Reznick, and getting his money back, even if it means tearing down the powerful crime syndicate Reznick is a member of.

Payback is not for those with qualms about casual violence, because there’s a lot of that spread around (including beatings, shootings, nose rings ripped out, and a not particularly graphic but still cringe-inducing torture scene), but for those to whom that’s not a deterrent, there’s also plenty of black humor.  Mel Gibson’s gravelly-voiced narration is straight out of a neo-noir crime potboiler, and the script by Brian Helgeland and Terry Hayes gives him plenty of noir-esque one-liners like “old habits die hard.  if you don’t kick them, they kick you”.  Apart from the levels of profanity and violence, one could imagine Porter played by the likes of Cagney or Bogart.  The movie serves up a whole rogues’ gallery of shady characters for Porter to work his way through, and the script has a few unpredictable turns (SPOILER WARNING like how the character set up as the “main” villain is dispatched earlier than expected).  Helgeland’s direction is stylish, accentuating the noirish overtones with desaturated colors, so that the film verges on being almost black-and-white.

Mel Gibson (whose production company Icon financed the film) is perfectly-cast.  The breezy charm Gibson has shown in other roles is toned down for something more gritty and edgy, but his screen presence and charisma still seeps through enough to get us to root for Porter even though, conventionally speaking, he’s not a nice guy (“nice guys are fine.  you gotta have somebody to take advantage of”, he narrates as one of his voiceover nuggets of wisdom).  In fact, one could argue it slightly weakens the movie to toss in a subplot about his romance with a prostitute named Rosie (Maria Bello), for whom he has a soft spot.  I understand the instinct, but a ballsier movie might have left him an amoral thug with no redeeming qualities.  Maria Bello is fine as the hooker with a heart of gold, but feels a little shoehorned in to make Porter slightly more sympathetic.  The rest of the cast serves up colorful noir types, including Gregg Henry hamming it up with relish as the sleazeball Reznick, David Paymer as a weaselly informant, Bill Duke and Jack Conley as a couple of crooked cops, William Devane and James Coburn each supplying a little deadpan humor as high-ranking members of the crime syndicate, and Lucy Liu as a dominatrix who really enjoys her work.  And, despite limited screentime and not showing up until late in the movie, Kris Kristofferson is a satisfactory “big bad” as the head honcho whose attention Porter eventually attracts.

Payback is a worthy successor/homage to the kinds of 1950s-era noir crime thrillers it emulates, and for everyone else, it’s a deliciously hard-boiled 100 minutes that serves up plenty of dark humor, violence, and a few twists and turns.

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