Payback

PaybackDirector: Brian Helgeland (and reshoots by John Myhre)
Starring: Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, James Coburn, Kris Kristoferson, Willaim Devane, Bill Duke, Lucy Liu, David Paymer, Deborah Kara Unger, Jack Conley
Music: Chris Boardman
Based on the novel ‘The Hunter’ by Donald E. Westlake (under the pseudonym Richard Stark).

The book, The Hunter on which this film is based, was previously filmed as John Boorman’s classic sixties crime film, Point Blank, which starred Lee Marvin. When I first heard that they were remaking it, I was pretty disgusted. There is certainly nothing wrong with the original. Why remake it? I saw it as another example of Hollywood’s lack of imagination.

When I finally saw Payback I wasn’t too impressed. To begin with, it’s opening scene features a bullet riddled Mel Gibson lying on a table. The dodgy doctor, who is about to patch him up, takes a long, long swallow from a glass of scotch, then refills the glass. This time he drops his operating tools (scalpels and the like) into the glass. At the time of viewing I had just finished reading Mickey Spillane’s The Black Alley. In the book, Mike Hammer has been shot up (again), and has to be patched up by an alcoholic ex-doctor. You know the kind, the ones you have been crossed off the medical register, because they botched an operation and the patient died. Now they drink to forget. Added to that, the next book I started reading was Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, in which Jason Bourne is patched by a drunken doctor. Clichés are a funny thing. Sometimes you don’t notice them until you are hit over the head two or three times in a row.

For me, at that time, another ‘drunken doctor’ story device was an unwelcome cliché. And let’s face it, it’s a hoary old chestnut to begin with, featured in numerous crime films from the 1940’s (the Humphrey Bogart movie, Dark Passage springs to mind).

Then I thought back to Point Blank and tried what recall how Lee Marvin had recovered from the bullet wounds. Actually we don’t see how Marvin got patched up. In fact we don’t see how he got off Alcatraz Island (for those who haven’t seen Point Blank, that’s where Marvin’s character is double-crossed and shot). Naturally for a tough guy like Lee Marvin, no explanation is necessary. It’s a given that he will survive.

That brings us back to Payback. On my first viewing my vision was cloudy by the crap clichéd opening. Added to that Gregg Henry and Lucy Liu’s characters have a very weird, violent sexual relationship going on. It added an element of sleaze to the film that wasn’t necessary. Needless to say, I didn’t enjoy the film too much.

But years have passed, and I sat down to watch Payback again. This time, I just let the film wash right over me. It’s been a few years since I have seen Point Blank, so Lee Marvin’s long shadow has diminished somewhat, and I know the film is a clichéd mess, so all that’s left to do is to enjoy the film for what it is…a piece of B-grade trash, with an A-grade budget. And I must confess I did enjoy the film, but I looked at it more as a quasi film-noir, rather than a remake. And hey, maybe appropriating ‘noir’ elements like the drunken doctor were in keeping with the type of film they were making.

So what’s it all about? Mel Gibson is Porter (no first name). Porter is a career criminal who steals things. He teams up with Val Resnick (Gregg Henry) to steal a suitcase full of money from the members of a Chinese numbers racket. Porter and Resnick’s plan works to perfection and they get away clean with $140,000. Porter is expecting a half share totalling $70,000. This is where things go wrong for Porter. Porter’s wife, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), who had been driving the getaway car, shoots her husband in the back a few times (talk about a messy divorce!) Porter is left for dead, and Lynn drives of with Resnick who had pre-arranged the whole double cross. It seems Resnick needed all the money to pay off a local crime syndicate.

Six months later, Porter has healed and wants his money back – all $70,000, which he feels he had earned. And Porter is prepared to intimidate, beat or kill anyone to get it. The rest of the film is devoted to Porter’s dogged determination in retrieving his money.

As I mentioned at the top, I haven’t seen the Director’s Cut, but all reports indicate that it is a very different beast to the one we have here. Here we have a quasi film noir revenge movie. The Director’s Cut apparently draws it’s inspiration from the early seventies crime dramas that featured tough anti-heroes. Apparently the decision was made to re-shoot and re-edit the film in 1999, because it was believed that the viewing public weren’t ready to see Mel’s nasty side. I’d love to see it, but so far it hasn’t made it to this part of the world. But until then, I guess this isn’t as bad as I first thought. It’s a serviceable crime thriller, with Mad Mel being a little bit nastier than usual.

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