Payback (1999) / Thriller-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, language, drug content, and sexual content
Running Time: 101 min.
Cast: Mel Gibson, Maria Bello, Gregg Henry, Lucy Liu, Kris Kristofferson, William Devane, David Paymer, Jack Conley, Bill Duke, Deborah Kara Unger, James Coburn, John Glover, Freddy Rodriguez
Director: Brian Helgeland (some re-shot scenes added by John Myhre)
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland, Terry Hayes (based on the book, "The Hunter", by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake))
Review published March 6, 1999. Revised on April 16, 2007
Two small time thieves named Val (Henry, Star Trek: Insurrection) and Porter (Gibson, Lethal Weapon 4) put the moves on a Chinese gang to steal $140,000. They are supposed to split it evenly, but Val needs the money to get back into the syndicate for more big time work. Val double-crosses Porter, even getting Porter's wife (Unger, Crash) to shoot him in the back and leave him for dead. Porter miraculously survives, but now he's pack, he's pissed, and he wants his $70,000 at any cost.
Adapted from Donald Westlake's novel, written under his pseudonym of Richard Stark, Payback is a unique action movie that forces the audience into siding with a ruthless hood, mainly because those he is trying to put the squeeze on are all even more vile than he is.
The acting is very good across the board, with Gibson as engaging as always in showing a complexity in the role that suggests that there is something going on underneath the seemingly amoral exterior. Unlike many of the other characters in the film, Porter does what he does strictly for the money, even if it means stealing from the poor to get it, or taking out a few of the rich and powerful.
Writer-director Brian Helgeland (A Knight's Tale) imbues the film with a very retro-1970s vibe, recalling some of the darker, more exploitative hard-boiled crime thrillers of that era. The color scheme is washed out in favor of blue hues, It should be noted that about a third of the theatrical release's scenes were made after Helgeland walked from the project, retooling parts of the screenplay and studio reshoots, which Gibson was an active part of. Helgeland didn't agree with some of the studio concerns regarding the dark nature of Porter's character, as well as the ambiguous ending, which they felt made viewers less sympathetic with his ordeal.
Note: Helgeland has subsequently issued a Director's Cut, restoring most of the scenes he had shot before washing his hands of the project, including some rescoring and less play on the color schemes from scene to scene. It also runs about 10 minutes shorter, and the final third of the film is almost entirely different (sans the entire Kris Kristofferson and son characters).
You should be aware that Payback is a very violent film, although tempered to great extent with some choice dark humor and colorful characterizations. It may not be everyone's bag, but if you like the seedier, more gritty crime stories of the 1970s, this one will pay you back in entertainment for all of your money and time you spend.
©1999, 2007 Vince Leo