Starring: Mel Gibson, Maria Bello, Gregg Henry, Lucy Liu, Kris Kristofferson
Director: Brian Helgeland
It’s become common knowledge over the last few years that a bat-shit crazy Mel Gibson sells more tickets than a sane one, and while I really couldn’t care less what sexist or racist comments have landed the veteran actor in the headlines on any given day, if it results in a re-issue of the criminally underrated “Payback,” then by all means Mel, do your thing. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland (perhaps best known for scripting Academy Award-winning films like “Mystic River” and “L.A. Confidential”), “Payback” is not only one of Gibson’s best films of the ‘90s, it’s one of the best of his career.
Gibson stars as seedy anti-hero Porter, a small-time thief who’s double-crossed by his junkie wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) and partner in crime Val (Gregg Henry) shortly after earning the score of a lifetime. Shot and left for dead, Porter manages to survive the betrayal, but when he returns to the big city looking for a little payback, he discovers that Val has already paid his way back into the local crime syndicate, the Outfit, with Porter’s half. And the only way that he’ll ever see his $70,000 again is to go up against the Outfit themselves, led by a trio of malicious bosses (William DeVane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson), all while juggling a pair of crooked cops (Bill Duke and Jack Conley), their shady middle man (David Paymer), and the Oriental gang that he stole from along the way.
Released during the flurry of contemporary film noirs that began popping up during the late ‘90s, “Payback” remains one of the best if only for its darkly comical protagonist and amazing supporting cast. Screen legends like Kristofferson and Coburn lend certain validity to the project, while relative unknowns like Maria Bello and Lucy Liu spice things up as two of the industry’s hottest upcoming actresses. Even Freddy Rodriguez stops in for a small role as a punk drug dealer whose nose ring is ripped out by Gibson’s character, while the always-hilarious Gregg Henry delivers one of the best performances (perhaps only second to “Slither") of his little-seen career.
What ultimately sets “Payback” apart from every other crime drama of its time, however, is the fact that the protagonist is almost as corrupt as the real villains of the film. Hell, he’d probably be a villain in any other movie. The opening scene alone shows him stealing from a homeless man, gypping a waitress out of a tip, picking some guy’s pocket, running up said guy’s credit card and emptying out his bank account, and then skipping on the dinner bill when his cash flow has completely dried out. Still, he’s the most likeable bad guy in the story, so it makes sense that the audience would be rooting for him as he gets his revenge, especially because he does so with such comic flair. It’s not very often you see a film offer a healthy balance of story, comedy and violence, but “Payback” gets the job done with such ease that it’s easy to forgive the cartoonish nature of Porter’s wild journey. Not as wild as Gibson’s real-life antics, mind you, but certainly wild enough to deliver one helluva revenge thriller.
Straight Up: Director's Cut DVD Review:
First thing’s first: a double dip this is not. The director’s cut of “Payback” is so vastly different from the theatrical version that it’s practically a whole other movie. The runtime is 11 minutes shorter, the tone is much darker and more violent, and the narration has been removed. The blue tint has also been removed - not because it was against the director's original vision, but because he figured the audience would appreciate watching the film without it. Perhaps the biggest change, however, is the total absence of the Kris Kristofferson character. In fact, the whole third act is different in Brian Helgeland’s cut, with Sally Kellerman as the voice of the Outfit. No children are kidnapped. No toes mashed into roast beef. Just a good old fashioned shootout. As a result, neither film is particularly better than the other, but both stand as excellent versions of the story.
The special features are much better on the new disc, though, with an excellent commentary track by Helgeland, a making-of featurette (“Paybacks Are a Bitch”), a 30-minute featurette on the differences between the two versions (“Same Story, Different Movie”), and a short conversation with author Donald E. Westlake, who penned the novel for which the film is based. It’s nice to see both Gibson and Helgeland appear in interviews for the new release, but it seems they still haven’t cleared the air after seven years. Still, this is an excellent purchase for fans of the film. Just don’t sell your copy of the original DVD, either, because you’ll likely want to keep both after seeing just how different each version really is.