Payback (1999)

No More Mr. Nice Guy.

With friends like these, who needs enemies? That's the question bad guy Porter is left asking after his wife and partner steal his heist money and leave him for dead -- or so they think. Five months and an endless reservoir of bitterness later, Porter's partners and the crooked cops on his tail learn how bad payback can be.

Indestructible Gibson in grim and gritty telling of The Hunter.
This is not an out and out remake of John Boorman's 1967 offering Point Blank, the structure is different from the 67 film, and where Point Blank is a dark psychological thriller that is rightly regarded as being towards the top of the neo-noir tree, this Brian Helgeland directed film really should be seen as a different interpretation of Donald E. Westlake's novel The Hunter.
Mel Gibson plays tough as nails thief Porter, who is double crossed, shot, and then left for dead by his wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) and his partner in crime Val Resnick (Gregg Henry). We are then taken on a dark journey as Porter sets out to reclaim the $70.000 that he was shot and almost killed for. He wants no more, no less than what he is owed, and he literally will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. Including taking on the Chicago mob organisation known as The Outfit.
Payback is a mean and violent movie, it is unrelenting in its willingness to keep nastiness at the top of the story. The film is full of flawed and vile people, even Porter himself, the closest we have to a (anti) hero has badness coursing through his veins, he is a dislikable killer, the film is about exactly what the tag-line suggests, Get Ready To Root For The Bad Guy! As Porter trawls through this part of Chicago, he will come across bent coppers, drug pushers/addicts/runners, Asian gangsters, prostitutes, violence fetishists and the slimy chain of command of the Chicago mob. Nobody here is about to cheer you up.
The style of the film owes its being to classic film noir and the 1970s hard crime movies led by Dirty Harry and Death Wish. The makers had originally wanted to film it in black and white, but instead went for a de-saturation technique, a bleach by-pass process that really puts a grim grey and blue sheen on the visuals. The thumping score is tonally correct, while a good sound track also helps (always nice to see hear Voodoo Chile), and the use of voice over narration by Porter evokes the classic noir period and works a treat because it's not over done.
The film strongly relies on Mel Gibson to bring menace and a measure of sympathy to the vengeful Porter, and it is with much credit that he manages to achieve both these things skilfully. He is backed by a strong support cast, Maria Bello admirable in her big shift from TV to film - Lucy Liu hilarious and stunningly sexy as a dominatrix and Gregg Henry is just wild. The Outfit chain of command features William Devane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson, all slick and welcome additions, even if they are all under used; though this is more by narrative necessity than film making decisions. Bill Duke, David Paymer and Jack Conley fill out the impressive roll call of scum-bags.
Violent, laconic and darkly comic as well, Payback is one of the best remakes around, a neo-noir essential in fact. 8.5/10
Footnote: Director Helgeland released his own Directors Cut in 2006. Unhappy with the original version, he changed some of the structure and visual style and made it shorter by ten minutes. It's inferior to the 100 minute original cut in my opinion, losing much of the noir stylisations, but the last quarter is different and will (does) certainly appeal to others.

Icon Productions, Warner Bros. Pictures by Brian Helgeland, Donald E. Westlake, Terry Hayes.
Stars: Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, David Paymer.

Genres: Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller

Keywords: new york city prostitute hotel robbery based on novel or book anti hero heroin greed revenge money violence drugs criminal double cross neo-noir corrupt cop

02/05/1999

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