Payback Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

Not many men know what their life's worth. I do. Seventy grand.
Payback Poster

Playing anti-heroes seems to fit Mel Gibson very well. After all, with a dashing screen presence and the hint of instability in his eyes, Gibson has a knack for playing less-than-savory characters that audiences can immediately latch onto-- a vindictive loner in "Mad Max" and "The Road Warrior", a suicidal cop in "Lethal Weapon", and a mentally-unstable taxi driver in "Conspiracy Theory". In "Payback", the second cinematic adaptation of Donald E. Westlake's crime novel "The Hunter", Gibson once again steps into the shoes of the cool anti-hero, playing a streetwise hold-up man named Porter. As usual, you may not agree with his methods, but it is difficult to argue against his motives.

They say that time heals all wounds. You'd think after five months of lying on my back I'd forget all about it.

"Payback" opens in a decrepit doctor's office where we see Porter having two bullets being taken out of his back, with copious amounts of whiskey being used as both the anaesthetic and the antiseptic of choice. A few hours earlier, he was part of a scheme to rob some Chinese money-launderers that went off without a hitch. However, Porter wound up being duped out of his share and left for dead by both his partner Val (Gregg Henry) and his wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger of "The Game").

Old habits die hard. If you don't kick'em, they kick you. Ain't marriage grand?
Deborah Kara Unger

Five months later, Porter is back on the street, fully recovered and a burning desire for vengeance. With no money in his pockets and only the clothes on his back, Porter sets in motion his plan for getting the $70,000 that 'rightfully' belongs to him. At first, his brazenness is limited to stealing money from a homeless man, pick-pocketing a businessman, leaving a restaurant without paying, and not leaving a tip in a coffee shop. However, as Porter navigates through the seedy underworld in search of his money, the illicit acts he commits increase in both severity and frequency, not to mention the body count. Along the way, he learns that Lynn has become a heroin junkie, while Val has squared off his debts with a crime syndicate known simply as 'The Outfit' and has become one of their trusted lieutenants.

Crooked cops... do they come any other way? If I had been any dumber, I would have joined the force myself.

In addition, Porter comes into contact with a number of contemptible characters. On the low end of the food chain are a taxi-dispatcher-turned-gangland wannabe (David Paymer of "Mighty Joe Young"), a couple of crooked cops on the take, the Chinese mafia, and a leather-clad S&M dominatrix who takes her work very seriously (Lucy Liu, who plays Ling on "Ally McBeal"). At the other end of the spectrum are the top dogs of the criminal world, the three men that run 'The Outfit': Carter (William Devane of the new TV series "Turks"), Fairfax (James Coburn, seen recently in "Affliction"), and Bronson (Kris Kristofferson of "Blade"). Fortunately, Porter is not alone, as he has the assistance of Rosie (Maria Bello of "E.R."), a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold that he has unresolved feelings for.

I pick up a phone and say his name, and he's a dead man! And this time he stays dead!
Maria Bello and Mel Gibson

"Payback" is the directorial debut of Brian Helgeland, well known among Hollywood circles as the scribe for "L.A. Confidential" (he was also responsible for scribing "The Postman" and "Conspiracy Theory"). Though production wrapped up in the fall of 1997 after a short one-month shoot, the film was shelved following several poor test-screenings. Despite Helgeland's protests, Gibson commissioned an overhaul of the completed project that changed the film's original grim ending and softened the portrayal of its protagonist. While this move seems to have paid off handsomely given the appearance of the final product, it allegedly strained the friendship between the star and the director, and the animosity is rumored to continue to this day.

It's only seventy thousand? Hell, my suits are worth more than that!

"Payback" certainly has a lot going for it. With a suave sense of style, snappy dialogue, black humor, and some clever plotting, this action-thriller is a romp through the seedier side of town, reminiscent of last year's pulp fiction underdog "Out of Sight". Gibson's malicious yet delicious anti-hero characterization always remains front and center amidst the carnage, and you cannot help but cheer for him as he takes down the bad guys. Furthermore, Helgeland's eye for camera placement brings a number of visual flourishes to the production, which is complemented by the bleak and grainy look courtesy of cinematographer Ericson Core.

What happened to you?
I got hammered.
Don't mess with Mel!

However, it should be noted that "Payback" is not for the squeamish. Porter is one mean motorscooter when it comes to dishing out the most grisly and excruciatingly painful forms of punishment to those that would stand in his way. When Porter is not pulling a nose ring out of a drug dealer, shooting his adversaries without flinching, or incinerating some hired goons on his tail, he ends up taking the full brunt of what the harsh underworld can unleash. One particularly memorable scene in this vein is a bone-crunching torture sequence involving Porter's toes and a sledgehammer. But, if you can get past the often-graphic brutality, "Payback" works.

You look pretty good for a dead guy.

I must admit that I walked into the theater not expecting much from this film, given its troubled history and numerous release delays. After all, a number of 'delayed releases' have turned out to be major disappointments, such as "Virus" and last year's "Hard Rain". However, I walked out pleasantly surprised by what I saw. "Payback" certainly has a lot of panache, and you'll definitely be rooting for the bad guy.

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Go Back to Movie Review Archive Index