movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 1999 Icon Distribution Inc. All rights reserved.)

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Payback is as brutal and blunt as a sledgehammer to the head, but it's also, strangely, a lot of fun. On the surface, it looks like another Pulp Fiction wanna-be. Filmed in masculine greys, blues, and blacks (the same colors, not coincidentally, as a revolver), it introduces us to a host of seamy characters who only care about themselves, but Payback is definitely sleeker and more compact than Pulp Fiction. It focuses on just one story--with such devotion that the movie clocks in at only about 90 minutes.

Director/writer Brian Helgeland (who co-scripted the excellent L.A. Confidential, as well as the awful The Postman) takes an approach similar to his leading character, Porter (Mel Gibson), so Payback isn't a terribly complicated movie. Porter is a rather simple guy who puts his cards on the table immediately; likewise Helgeland has no pretensions that he's creating art. Instead, he comes at you head on. Nothing fancy. And then, when your defenses are down, he pulls the rug out from under your feet. While Porter might have a reputation as a slow thinker, he knows how to survive, and when he's pushed, he knows how to respond. Likewise, Helgeland sets up scenes with seemingly insignificant details, and then later, those details crack back at you when you least expect it. At first glance, this movie might look like an insignificant throwaway, but it's filled with astonishing plot twists--the kind that can literally take your breath away.

For the first hour, Payback is an efficient crime thriller that deals out vicious violence with glib shrugs and snappy one-liners. People are kicked in the head, punched in the stomach, and shot in the back. Sledgehammers crush toes. A dog gets shot. One guy even gets his nose ring ripped out. We've seen plenty of movies treading this territory before, movies that riff on Pulp Fiction while glamorizing violence and splattering enough blood to make you think Jackson Pollack served as their art director. But Payback exhibits such complete disregard for human life--unredeemed by any moralizing--that the results become humorous. (One of the first things you hear in Payback is James Brown singing "It's a Man's Man's Man's World.") Like Toshiro Mifune's samurai warrior in Yojimbo or Client Eastwood's drifter in A Fistful of Dollars, Porter (Gibson) rivets your attention because he's absurdly unrepentant about the bloodshed that follows wherever he goes. He's a man on a quest and nothing will stop him until he has what he wants.

In this case, what he wants is $130,000 in cash--no wait, make that $70,000. That's the running joke in the movie. Porter only wants what is his, namely the $70,000 that his partner, Val (Gregg Henry at his sleazy best), took from him. Everyone thinks he must be crazy for making such a fuss about such a relatively small sum of money. After Porter and Val pull an astonishingly brutal heist--ripping off gangsters by smashing head-on into the gangsters' car in an alley ("They weren't wearing their seat belts," Porter says matter-of-factly)--Val leaves him for dead with two bullet holes in his back. And then Val buys into a crime syndicate by giving them $130,000. Several weeks later, when Porter has regained his health. He comes looking for Val. He just wants his $70,000, nothing more. But the syndicate won't budge: "No corporation in the world would do what you want," Carter (William Devane) tells him. "Committees would have to meet " That's part of the joke, too, that crime syndicates are really just like any other corporation. They even have dental and medical insurance plans.

For the first hour, Payback moves with the grace of a runaway locomotive, but then somewhere around the scene where James Coburn first appears, the movie moves to a completely different level altogether. Maybe it's the way Coburn creates such a stylish-but-hardboiled crime boss that makes the difference. When Coburn arrives home from a trip, Porter greets him inside Coburn's palatial home, stepping forward with guns raised. He orders Coburn's strong-arm men to hold their arms at shoulder level--and not to drop the suitcases. Porter and Coburn argue about the $70,000. Meanwhile the guards struggle to keep their arms horizontal. As their arms tire and the suitcases begin to drop--BAMM!--Porter's gun barks and a slug rips through one of Coburn's expensive alligator skin suitcases. Coburn's jaw hits the floor: "Man that's just mean!" he says. "Stop it. I'm gettin' misty," says Porter. It's a marvelous scene, easily the equal of anything that Tarantino has ever committed to celluloid.

Payback owes a lot to John Boorman's Point Blank (which was also based on Richard Stark's novel The Hunter). Both movies are about a professional thief who gets shot and left for dead by his partner and who then sets out to exact revenge and get the money that is his. In both cases, they must get their money back from the "organization." In the process, they scale the corporate ladder, piling one body one top of the next, while pursuing the man behind the man. However, Payback eschews the existentialism of Boorman's film for violence so hardnosed, exaggerated, and brutal that there is little left to do but laugh. Whereas Point Black gave us the decidedly uncharismatic Lee Marvin in the lead role, Payback gives us one of the most charismatic actors in Hollywood. Mel Gibson doesn't try to solicit the audience's sympathies. His portrayal is as blunt as the movie's violence. But we like him because he's a man of principles. That's why he wants only $70,000. Not $130,000. And he's also capable of love. It seems that's part of why he came back. He remembers the high-priced hooker that he used to chauffeur, and he remembers the good times they had together. So Payback gives us a world where men like Porter can actually succeed and live to enjoy life.

Or can they? It's possible that Porter is actually on the brink of death after his partner turns on him and the movie is Porter's death-vision as he's being operated on by a whiskey-guzzling doctor. In fact, the fantasy theory makes a lot of sense because it explains why the filmmakers have exaggerated the violence to absurd proportions. Payback's not as psychologically complex as Point Blank, and I can easily envision fans of Boorman's movie feeling like director Helgeland has trivialized one of the great unheralded crime thrillers. But few movies are as entertaining as Payback.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]