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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 Greg King
3 stars out of 4

Brian Helgeland, the guy who wrote LA Confidential and Conspiracy Theory, finally gets the chance to direct, with this unapologetically tough and amoral crime thriller.

Mel Gibson is largely playing against type as the tough, repellent anti-hero Porter, a small time criminal who specialises in payroll heists. During a payroll robbery, Porter is double crossed by his wife and her lover and left for dead. The sleazy Val (Gregg Henry), who likes his kinky sex with a sadistic edge, owes money to a shadowy criminal syndicate, known only as The Outfit.

Porter comes looking for vengeance, hoping to recover his half of the stolen money from Val, who has managed to worm his way back in with the Outfit. Porter's quest eventually leads him into an escalating war with the Outfit and its ultimate supremo Bronson (Kris Kristofferson, wonderful in a small role). But Porter has his own moral code and is only interested in getting his $70,000, whatever it takes. "You're doing this for a principle? For $70,000?" asks an astonished James Coburn. "Hell, my suits cost more than that!"

Also caught in the cross fire are the usual underworld low life denizens, some crooked cops, and Stegman (David Paymer), a slimy taxi despatcher and small time drug dealer with ambitions to join the Outfit. In Porter's world there are no innocent bystanders. Porter's only ally is Rosie (ER's Maria Bello), a high priced call girl for whom he has a soft spot.

Payback is actually a remake of John Boorman's tough and visually stylish 1967 crime thriller Point Blank, which featured Lee Marvin. That film was also again loosely remade in 1974, as The Outfit, with Robert Duvall playing the role of the vengeance seeking criminal. Like its two predecessors, Payback has been based on The Hunter, a novel written by Richard Stark (a pseudonym used by Donald E Westlake, when he wanted to break away from comic capers like The Hot Rock, etc, and write tough, violent, genre thrillers).

And Payback is certainly violent! Gone is the disposable comic book like violence of Gibson's Lethal Weapon series, replaced with a more disconcerting, vicious, callous and gratuitous violence. Helgeland's direction is certainly proficient and pacy, and he revels in the graphic blood letting. Helgeland peppers the film with many noir like touches, and Payback also has a deliberately old fashioned, '70's look about it. Helgeland also adds a touch of dark humour to proceedings. He wastes few moments, and his crisp and stylish direction is the perfect cinematic equivalent of Stark's terse prose.

Gibson was apparently unhappy with the tyro director's finished film, and reshot about 30%, including the final scenes, giving Helgeland's original vision a darker tone. Gibson also brought in Kristofferson to play the mob boss.

Gibson brings a hard, unforgiving edge and weary quality to his performance as a ruthless criminal, although his unsympathetic choice of role here may come as something of a surprise to many of his fans. The performances of the supporting cast are solid, with Kristofferson, an uncredited Coburn, and William Devane oozing smarmy sincerity as the triumvirate who rule the Outfit.

Although a slickly produced crime thriller, Payback is also very violent, and one of Gibson's nastier and more disposable efforts.

Copyright 2000 Greg King

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