The last time Mel Gibson played anything resembling the heavy in
'Payback' was in 1988's 'Tequila Sunrise'. That was a soft core
examination of a drug dealer and his relationship with a childhood
friend who became a cop and the film also involved what usually comes
between men to make them enemies---money and a woman. That film was
easy to resist because its entire running time was equivalent to
watching a slow motion action picture but its characterizations made up
for its flaws. Perhaps one of the reasons that 'Tequila Sunrise' was a
disappointment was because it was directed by a well known writer,
Robert Towne, perhaps one of the greatest screenwriters of the modern
era. Towne won an Oscar for perhaps one of the cinema's most complex
screenplays of the modern era---'Chinatown' in 1974. Towne also does a
lot of uncredited "touch up" work on screenplays that aren't quite right
for other people before and after they go into production. As a rule,
writers don't translate well into good directors.
What had me nervous about 'Payback' was that it was directed by another
relatively well known screenwriter, at least among movie buffs, Brian
Helgeland. Helgeland has to his credit another directing job from
1989's t.v. series 'Tales from the Crypt'. He also co-produced and won
an Oscar for co-writing 1997's 'L.A. Confidential'. His limited success
so far convinced the studio to let him try his hand at directing and I
was holding my breath. I exhaled with delight as 'Payback' is one of
the best films released in the second month of the last year of the
twentieth century. Perhaps an odd description for a film but I hope
1999 lets us leave the decade, the century and the millennium with some
dignity. Hopefully more than 1998 did.
The characters in 'Payback' are the lowest forms of scum on the face of
the Earth but what's attractive about it is that although Gibson is one
of them, the others are ten times as bad so as the slogan for the film
goes, get ready to root for the bad guy. Gibson is Porter and along
with a slimy accomplice named Resnick (Gregg Henry), they pull off a
robbery with the aid of Porter's wife (Deborah Kara Unger). Porter is
double crossed by both of them and seeks to get revenge (and his share
of the money back).
This film does more for the strange art of revenge than most films of
its kind and it's refreshing to watch since revenge is something we've
all wanted at some point in our lives whether we want to admit it or
not. What makes Porter stand out and more capable than his foes is the
fact that he is a former Marine with the tattoo "USMC" on his arm to
prove it. There are three crime bosses to contend with (William Devane,
James Coburn, and Kris Kristofferson), a weasel and wannabe big time
criminal (David Paymer) and a mob whose most attractive asset (in looks
only) is a hooker who likes to perform "crotch squash" on men who p***
her off. Throw in another hooker, this time with a heart of gold, and
two crooked cops, and 'Payback' has all you could ask for in an
entertaining crime story that you feel embarrassed to laugh at but later
are glad that you did.
Perhaps something that I hope a lot of people will notice, is that
'Payback' is not set in the present day. They don't tell you exactly
when but all of the phones are the old dial-up type, there are a lot of
big gas guzzling cars, a computer is not seen among the businessmen and
the wardrobe also gives it away to a certain extent. My guess is it's
set in the early 80's.
'Payback' assaults the senses by making a vicious grab for the jugular.
It holds back nothing but portrays the cleverness of one criminal whose
sole purpose is not only to survive but to do it on a day to day basis.
Copyright © 2000 Walter Frith