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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Payback

Starring: Mel Gibson, Maria Bello
Director: Brian Helgeland
Rated: R
RunTime: 102 Minutes
Release Date: February 1999
Genres: Suspense, Thriller

*Also starring: James Coburn, William Devane, Bill Duke, Gregg Henry, Lucy Liu, Kris Kristofferson, Deborah Unger, David Paymer

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The tagline for this taut, violent, swiftly-paced and thoroughly captivating movie is "Get ready to root for the bad guy." Now, that's not too unusual--after all the villains always get the best lines and make the heroes look really good. This time around, you root for the trigger-happy scrapper because of all the macho men in the show he's the one with the choice reason to use his weapons: justifiable revenge. Porter (Mel Gibson), the hero- villain of Brian Helgeland's "Payback," is much more than an oxymoron. He's one of the most exciting naughty boys to come along in a while, wearing his outrage on his sleeve the way a much cooler James Bond would flaunt the golden cufflinks on his Perry Ellis shirt.

"Payoff" is an update of a noir thriller, John Boorman's 1967 tingling "Point Blank," which was somehow shunted aside by critics and audience alike at the time but which became elevated to classic stature to such an extent that it was featured at the recent New York Film Festival to wide acclaim. In Boorman's work--based like the current one on a novel by Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard Stark--a mobster (played by Lee Marvin) completes a successful robbery only to be double-crossed by his wife and his partner, shot and left for dead. When he recovers from his serious wounds, he is intent on re-capturing his share of the money, not a penny more, but his real motive is revenge.

This fresh version is situated in Chicago, which photographer Ericson Core bathes in a blue hue. With Mel Gibson's occasional narration and Chris Boardman's moody soundtrack, we're plunged into the episode briskly, at a pace that barely has time for a few romantic breaks. Director Helgeland prefers to have the fists and guns do most of the talking. From the very beginning, we're into Porter's perspective. He is flat on his back, a nasty bullet wound patched up by a seedy, back-alley medic who pours half a bottle of booze on the affront before extracting the bullet. A flashback takes us to the source of the wound. Porter plans a heist with the evil-looking Val (Gregg Henry) and his wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), which involves crashing his car head-on against one driven by money-launderers. Porter's devil-may-care bearing is apparent: he notes in planning the robbery that the Asian gangsters who regularly carry a case filled with cash do not wear seat belts. Score one for the educational value of the film.

While "Payback" is one of the most violent movies in recent years, exploiting an honest fury and brutality which is treated merely as tongue-in-cheek by Quentin Tarantino in "Pulp Fiction," it may not strike its audience in quite the same way that its predecessor did. In 1967, the wide screen had only recently become a household word with moviegoers, and "Point Blank" director Boorman exploited the advancement by tossing his villains from one end of the frame to the other. Buildings bulged from their foundations in much the manner used by Alex Proyas for his startlingly graphic "Dark City." Boorman's soundtrack often faded to silence as would a pop orchestra out to highlight certain vocal passages. Odd camera angles and fractured time lines inflected the story. Helgeland, who gave Mel Gibson an overwritten script as a motor-mouth, paranoid cabbie in "Conspiracy Theory" and who regained his reputation writing the stunning police drama "L.A. Conspiracy," has embraced sheer violence to replace the cinematic techniques of "Point Blank." In doing so he as squandered much of the elegance of the 1967 drama but has banking on Mel Gibson's audience appeal, a tough guy for whom we root despite his theft of a few dollars from an allegedly crippled homeless man. Watch especially the activities of Pearl (Lucy Alexis Liu), a high-priced hooker with a bent for extreme sado-masochism. How often do you see a small solidly built woman make her living from hanging willing clients upside down in their bedrooms and smashing them in the face when they speak out of turn? Or smiling broadly when a criminal sends a splintering blow across her mouth, causing her to lick her blood as though it were a dollop of tiramasu?

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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