Payback (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Payback is the most viscerally involving thriller to be released in the last several months. Granted, the plot is far from air-tight (in fact, towards the end, it begins to resemble Swiss cheese), but the adrenaline level is heightened to the point where you probably won't start noticing the flaws until the end credits have finished. That's not to say that Payback is cursed with a dumb script. Actually, it is well written, contains a flock of colorful characters, and gives star Mel Gibson a number of great one-liners. Just don't expect the experience to linger once the adrenaline rush has worn off.

Directed by Brian Helgeland (the screenwriter for L.A. Confidential) in his feature debut, Payback is a re-make of John Boorman's 1967 edge-of-the-seat movie, Point Blank. Both films are based on The Hunter, a novel by Donald E. Westlake (writing under the nom de plume of "Richard Stark"). For those unfamiliar with Westlake's work, he's the screenwriter for such gripping thrillers as The Stepfather and The Grifters. And, while this latest version of The Hunter isn't quite up to the level of its predecessor, it still offers a rousing 100 minutes.

Porter (Gibson) is a thief and a killer, which puts him in good company with the sadistic Val Resnick (Gregg Henry). Together, the pair, along with an assist from Porter's wife (Deborah Kara Unger), pulls off a $140,000 heist. But then Resnick turns greedy, shoots Porter twice, and takes all the dough. He makes a big mistake, however: not assuring that Porter is dead. Five months later, recovered from his wounds, Porter is out for revenge. With only one ally - his girlfriend, Rosie (Maria Bello) - he decides to destroy the powerful criminal organization of which Resnick is a member.

Casting Mel Gibson as Porter is an inspired choice (although, given that Gibson's production company, Icon, financed the film, it's not surprising). Payback's protagonist is an inherently dislikable fellow - a vicious killer who rips out people's nose rings, leaves behind corpses to rot, and doesn't care how many people he has to wipe out to get what he wants. However, with the appealing Gibson in this role, our natural inclination is to root for Porter, which is necessary for the film to work. If we're not on Porter's side, Payback becomes a litany of pointless violence (and there's a lot of that, including a torture scene that is uncomfortable to sit through). Gibson does a credible job playing a surly tough guy who's a cross between Bogart and Pacino.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Payback is the rogues' gallery of characters it offers. There's not just one bad guy, so we aren't forced to wait until the final reel for a measure of satisfaction. Along the way to the explosive finale, we meet a colorful cast of creeps and cretins: Gregg Henry hamming it up as Porter's former partner, Deborah Kara Unger as the hero's drugged-out wife, Maria Bello as his prostitute girlfriend, David Paymer as a sneak, James Coburn (looking far more debonair than in Affliction) and William Devane as lieutenants in the Organization, and Kris Kristofferson as the Head Honcho. There are also crooked cops and an Asian dominatrix (Lucy Alexis Liu) who really enjoys her work.

Payback is surprisingly stylish for an action-oriented thriller. Its look is pure film noir, with de-saturated colors emphasizing the grayness of the city streets and gloomy interiors. The voiceover narrative (which, thankfully, isn't overused) is straight out of a potboiler, as the tough guy recounts his misfortunes with lines like "Old habits die hard - if you don't kick them, they kick you." One can almost hear Bogart uttering those words. And, while there's quite a bit more graphic bloodshed and brutality here than in any of the late screen icon's vehicles, Payback is a worthy '90s successor to his kind of movie.

Payback (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 1999-02-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1