Monday, April 11, 2011

Payback Movie Review

First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 12 February 1999

I was immediately dubious of the tag line “Get ready to root for the bad guy” because Mel Gibson plays the supposed bad guy. You have to ask yourself in that situation, “Would the producers risk making Gibson a true-to-form villain?” The answer, of course, is no.

In Brian Helgeland’s directorial debut Payback, Gibson plays Porter, an anti-hero doing bad things according to the law, but doing them to men who are worse than he is. The film opens with a montage of Porter stealing someone’s wallet then running his credit card bills into the sky. He receives a check for $2.98 at a diner, puts down three dollars and takes two pennies from the tip at another table. There’s no question, he’s a regular baddie.

Porter is out to get back his half of the $140,000 he and his partner stole from an Asian gang. In a flashback, we learn exactly how it was taken, which automatically establishes Porter as the man to feel sorry for. After all, he was left for dead by his partner, Val (Gregg Henry), and his own wife (Deborah Kara-Unger) who, incidentally, pulled the trigger. Now he’s recovered and he’s back, harassing everyone who might spill the beans on his old partner.

Helgeland, who took home an Oscar and a Razzie in the same year (for L.A. Confidential and The Postman, respectively) is slumming with this confused attempt at a hip film. Helgeland and Terry Hayes adapted the screenplay from a book by Donald Westlake. It plods along looking for outrageous situations and then splattering them with fits of brutal violence.

Porter slowly works his way up the chain of command of the crime organization known as The Outfit. After getting the name Stegman from his wife’s drug dealer, he takes his first step into a world of pain, misery, murder, and violence. I suspect they intended for this organization to be not unlike a Mafia organization, but it’s never made quite clear what The Outfit is all about and what they do.

The whole film is bathed in a blue greenish hue, either by using filters or putting the film through a wash. The idea is to give the film a seedy look. It’s a good look and takes some getting used to, but it ends up helping this retread of so many other crime films.

At least this one doesn’t take itself too seriously, even if Gibson does.  There are amusing subplots involving two crooked cops who won’t get off Porter’s back and the Asian gang members who believe Porter alone stole their money. There’s also a love interest: an ex-prostitute (Maria Bello) whom Porter used to drive around and then had a one night stand with. So the film becomes not only a quest to recover $70,000 but to protect the woman at the same time.

Through most of the film, we see the same scenario repeated over and over as Porter threatens one guy, and then confronts another. Maybe there are bumps along the way and he gets taken for a ride by some thugs from The Outfit, but ultimately we suspect all along that he’ll come out the winner in the end. And why wouldn’t he?  He’s Mel Gibson – too popular for audiences to accept as a bad guy who loses.

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