Payback (1999)

D: Brian Helgeland
S: Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello

Vicious third adaptation of Richard Stark's novel The Hunter absurdly trying to make Mel Gibson into Lee Marvin (star of John Boorman's version Point Blank). He plays Porter (called 'Walker' in Point Blank), a minor thief who is double crossed by his partner (Gregg Henry) and his wife (Deborah Kara Unger of Crash), and who spends the rest of the movie shooting, punching, kicking, slapping, gouging, ripping, and exploding his way through a small army of mafia soldiers and capos in an attempt to get his money back. Set in a sort of retro-fantasy 1970s (though Gibson is dressed and coiffed for the nineties), the film attempts to attain some of the funkiness of Out of Sight to cover up for its basic lack of freshness. It doesn't help, because at its heart Payback is an empty and formulaic film which squanders the opportunity tobe something more.

It wisely steers clear of Point Blank in style and tone, but in doing so it loses the things which made it an interesting story. Point Blank concerned itself with questions of anachronism, with Marvin's tough guy being proved increasingly out of his depth in a changing world of contemporary crime where boardrooms and business deals had replaced heaters and strong arm tactics. It was a tragedy and a drama laced with Boorman's characteristic concern for metaphysics and striking use of cinematography to reinforce conceptual conceits. Director Brian Helgeland is best know for his Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation of L.A. Confidential. He does manage to give the film a steely-blue tone which informs the emotional shallowness and single-mindedness of his hero, but Gibson, playing superstar, works against anything the film might have tried to be other than a straight action thriller. Well publicised off-screen shenanigans have suggested that Gibson (whose Icon Productions produced the film) demanded reshoots and additional scenes to give his character a sympathetic edge, and he needs it, because in contrast to Point Blank, where despite Walker's equal single-mindedness and violence, he was a pathetic figure lost in a world of dishonourable suits who didn't even have the courage to make things personal, Payback gives us a super-cool, post-Tarantino criminal 'dude', all dressed in black and immaculately turned out even when being beaten to a pulp (which he is on too many occasions to remain credible) who never really seems likely to be overwhelmed by the forces of organised crime and effectively reverses moral lesson that might have been taught. It's a macho masculine fantasy when it could have been subtly subversive.

There are other things about it which just don't work at all, even on is own no-brainer level. Lucy Alexis Liu turns up as a stupidly OTT dominatrix and the film works in a clumsy sub plot involving the oriental gangsters which serves no useful purpose other than to provide it with more bodies to hurl about the screen. Talented actors appear in tiny roles which again do nothing and ultimately prove more of a distraction than anything else, though James Coburn has a nice bit as a fashion-conscious mob boss. There's also a bogus seventies jazz score by Chris Boardman which shamelessly palgiarises David Shire's opening theme from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which again reminds the viewer of how pitifully postmodern and generic the film really is. It is set in an unidentified and non-specific American city in what appears to be the early 1970s, and in a kind of self-conscious stylistic reference to classic film noir is more concerned with the oppression of urban space than the social specifics of crime in the big city. Its characters are ciphers without root or substance and everything seems directed towards enhancing Gibson's image rather than doing anything in particular with the story.

Everything in the film ultimately bends to Gibson's will, and because his characterisation is so shallow, there is nothing at its core. It is basically concerned with his determination to get his money back, and despite the few 'love me please' scenes of conversation between he and prostitute Maria Bello, the character has nothing to him. This hollow centre tells very quickly, and the succession of grisly, up close violent encounters becomes the film's engine. This is not a good thing on general principles, and it definitely backfires here because the straight-faced attempt to be cool is then set aside what seems to be an equation between the amount of punishment you can dish out and take and how masculine you are which has not been taken seriously in movies for a long time and was indeed the very question confronted and more thoroughly explored in Point Blank in 1967.

There are those for whom Payback will fill a gap following the departure of Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon 4, and on one level this is just as brainlessly entertaining as that particular cycle of bad hair day cartoonish pulp. Yet there is a sense that Helgeland might have had hopes for this film that weren't too far from being interesting, and given that the basic material has been used intelligently before, it was not unreasonable to hope that it would have gone forwards rather than back. However that is exactly where Payback takes Gibson, and far from expanding his range; it shrinks it. This is a dumb film which demands nothing of its audience other than the ability to keep their eyes open as men's bodies are beaten, bruised, cut, crushed, and violated in almost every conceivable way just for the hell of it. Is this progress?

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.