Release Date: February 5th, 1999 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Brian Helgeland Actors: Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, David Paymer, Bill Duke, Deborah Kara Unger, William Devane, Lucy Liu, Kris Kristofferson
ayback” is based on the Richard Stark novel “The Hunter” – the name change dispenses with any obscurities – and adapted by writer/director Brian Helgeland (he also wrote “Assassins,” “L.A. Confidential,” and “Conspiracy Theory”). It’s yet another theatrical take on Stark’s (also known as Donald E. Westlake) famous Parker character, here changed to Porter and given extensive narration duties – though he probably shouldn’t be chiming in so frequently. He rarely says anything necessary, instead restricting his observations to glib one-liners and words of sarcastic gangster wisdom that cheapen the film noir design. Ultimately, however, the overall result is still effective – a smart score combines with sharp wit and a brutally violent edge for a competent, action-filled thriller.
He knows his life is worth exactly $70,000, because that’s what it took to get him killed – Porter (a man with only one name, instantly denoting him as a badass), a professional robber, ends up unconscious on a dirty table as a greasy, fat, illegitimate doctor holding a bottle of liquor cuts bullets from his back with scissors. But Porter isn’t completely dead yet – he’s running on the fuel of revenge. His first goal (after little recuperation from the operation) is to perform a couple of easy swindles to gain some cash, new clothes, and a magnum – the necessary tools to reintroduce himself to the people that double-crossed him. His secret weapon is that no one in their right mind would go up against the criminal underworld for a measly 70 grand.
A flashback soon takes viewers to the origin of Porter’s devilish situation. In order to score a metal briefcase full of half-a-million in cash, Porter (Mel Gibson) partners with his wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) and his longtime accomplice Val Resnick (Gregg Henry), to target a group of Asian gangsters. The loot turns out to only be $140,000, which is barely enough for Val to buy his way back into the syndicate, and therefore reason enough to betray Porter for his share. Lynn is in on it too, after being convinced that her husband cheated with a hooker named Rosie (Maria Bello).
It’s a relatively incomplex setup, but just twisty enough (largely thanks to a chopped up timeline) to make Porter’s trail of blood seemingly worthwhile. Crooked cops, enormous thugs, sniveling drug pushers (including a comic turn by David Paymer as timid Arthur Stegman), prostitutes (including an over-the-top, early, dominatrix role by Lucy Liu), and knife-wielding, hammer-toting henchmen litter his path, but they’re all just minor obstacles on Porter’s road to retrieving his hard-earned (yet nevertheless stolen) money. Helping backstabbing Val is the “outfit,” led by Mr. Carter (William Devane), Mr. Fairfax (an uncredited James Coburn), and Mr. Bronson (Kris Kristofferson); this powerful crime organization creates a ladder of superiors that Porter is all too happy to climb up and knock off.
“Payback” is dark in tone and mood, and filled with muted colors, gritty violence, and seedy characters (the look and substance of a modernized noir). It unrelentingly paints a picture of murder, mayhem, and retribution that is both bold and entertaining. Although frequently merciless in its approach to bloodshed, the film’s villains all have it coming, which makes the leg-breaking and knuckle-wrapping just that much more satisfying. Porter also takes his share of beatings, proving in “Lethal Weapon” style that sometimes it’s more realistic when the good guys don’t emerge unscathed. In this case, thanks to a particularly barbarous torture scene and fearless cruelty towards women, no one leaves without provocative battle scars.
– Mike Massie