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
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