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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 Walter Frith
3½ stars out of 4

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

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