Mono-monikored gruff crook Porter (Gibson) wakes up with two bullets in his back after being double crossed out of his share of a $140000 score by his partner (Henry) and wife (Kara Unger). All he wants as recompense? Revenge and his $70000 share.
The first thing that struck me about Payback was; damn, this movie has not aged well. I had to keep double checking that it was actually released in 1999 and not 1989. It was grainy, grimy and felt like it belonged in a shitty cinema in the Bronx as part of a double biller. Scattershot, baritone voice overs punctuated the movie delivering classic, cynical lines such as “We made a deal; If she stopped hooking I’d stop shooting people. Maybe we were aiming a little high.” Layered with a mixture of funky, jazzy scores the whole thing felt like a Raymond Chandler novel squeezed through Richard Roundtree’s afro to form an odd little exploitation-hard boiled thriller. Short, sharp, grimy and witty, this is the movie that Tarantino should have aimed for with Grindhouse.
The opening 5 to 10 minute montage plays like a perverted rags to riches story as we see Porter go from having two bullets pulled out of his back by some warehouse doctor to a suited, booted and well armed anti-hero by way of a succession of grifts. And as the poster byline clearly states Gibson does play the archetypical anti-hero. Punching and killing his way through a series of characters to achieve his goals, all whilst sporting a leather jacket, perpetually smoking and firing out cheesy one liners.
The New York in which it is set feels like the pre-Giuliani Big Apple of the late 80’s and early 90’s when it had a fierce reputation for being a hub of violent crime and had a raging crack cocaine epidemic. I think the fact that this was pre-smoking ban just exacerbated that as everybody is smoking in restaurants throughout this movie. Weirdly, there was something about the score and the old Police cars that made me keep wanting a wise cracking Eddie Murphy to pop in to frame and go “Haaaaaa haaa ha ha”.
The one thing I remembered about Payback was it always being described as a violent thriller. As far as violent thrillers go though it felt pretty tame. Thats not to say it doesn’t have violence in it, but the more visceral violence comes in almost comedic fashion like when he rips a punk ass drug dealers nose ring out, or slams an arrogant smarmy hotel workers hand in a door. Maybe I am just de-sensitised through watching a succession of movies since which all seem to play body count leap frog with each other. In fact if you stacked this up next to something similar like Man on Fire for instance, this would seem about as violent as an episode of Quincy (God Bless Jack Klugman). That’s not to it’s detriment though. I don’t think more violence would add anything. In fact it would have made the black comedy that much more misplaced. The film it made me think of most all the way through was Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang. I could totally have seen this being a Shane Black movie.
At times it does seem to get lost with whether it is a self-knowing (hate that shitty phrase but can’t think of a better way to describe it) nod at gritty action thrillers or a tense jet-black comedy. In particular when Porter gets caught between two gangs and ends up rolling under vans and jumping up guns blazing. At one point he had an expression on his face as he jumped from behind a van with two guns drawn when there is a collective head turn and “huh?” moment from the occupants. I almost expected him to shout “Surprise, Cock Fags!” in a Team America voice.
The other problem is there are too many peripheral characters tying together the story arcs. For an hour and a half film, which is in essence a pretty simple “dude wants his money back” story, there is a double crossing partner and ex-wife, two dirty cops, a dodgy cowardly bookie (brilliantly weasely David Paymer), three mobs bosses, a BDSM Dominatrix hooker (freaking hooooottttttttt pre Charlie’s Angels Lucy Liu), a high price call girl love interest (before she was famous Maria Bello), the Chinese Mafia and endless numbers of disposable henchmen. At times it feels cluttered and an unnecessary number of mouths to feed.
Conclusion: All in all it delivers an hour and a half of witty, gritty fun although I found it hard to enjoy Mel Gibson as much as the first time I watched. In fact I have struggled to enjoy him in anything he made before or after this ever since he called that cop Sugar Tits and started blaming the Jews for everything. Which is a shame. That does means i’ll never be compelled to watch Forever Young again though.
Running Time: 100 mins Release Date: 26/03/1999
Tagline: No more Mr Nice Guy (which seems appropriate given Gibson’s personal path later on in life)
Director: Brian Helgeland – Best known for his screenplays such as LA Confidential (awesome), The Postman (seriously?), Knights Tale (fun movie about jousting), Mystic River (not fun movie about child molestation), Man on Fire (best Denzel/Tony Scott joint) and Green Zone (Bourne goes to war). This was his first big screen directorial debut. Also directed Knights Tale but nothing of note since.
Written By: Brian Helgeland (screenplay), Donald E Westlake (Novel)
Key Cast: Mel Gibson, Maria Bello, Lucy Liu, Gregg Henry, David Paymer, Kris Kristofferson, Deborah Kara Unger and James Coburn
Other Things I Noted
- Lucy Liu’s accent is all over the place. She is playing an Asian BDSM Mob Hooker but her accent ranges from German to Taiwanese. She does look unbelievably hot in a leather thong though.
- Gregg Henry looks like the love child of James Caan and Gary Busey.
- There is a sequence of shots at 48 minutes where a group of Chinese gangsters decamp from a car and walk over to Gibson before huddling around and standing over him. I swear as soon as I saw it I thought it looked uncannily like the shots of the Viper Squad entering the church and standing over The Bride in Kill Bill. Whether it is coincidence or Tarantino nicked the composition I don’t know. But’s it’s kinda cool that Liu is in both scenes.
Conclusion: 4 Thumbs Up (Recommend)
Top TV Connections
1. John Glover (Lionel Luther on Smallville) as henchman Phil
2. Freddy Rodriguez (Rico on Six Feet Under credited as Punk Messenger)
- “You look pretty good, for a dead guy”
- “No one likes a monkey on their back. I had three. They were cramping my style. I needed to lighten my load.”
- “What’s the matter, cat got your crotch?”
- Hooker – (seductively) “I have a few minutes”; Porter – “So go boil and egg”
- “Crooked cops. Do they come any other way? If I’d been a little dumber I could have joined the Force myself.”
- For release in Australia, the U.S. tagline “Get ready to root for the bad guy” was changed to “Get ready to CHEER for the bad guy” because in Australia “to root” is slang for “to have sexual intercourse…
- Director Brian Helgeland was fired from the film two days after he’d won his Academy Award for L.A.Confidential.
- Music editor Scott Stambler was involved in the theatrical cut, and was brought in to try and reedit Chris Boardman’s music from that version of the film into the Director’s cut. When it was decided by director Brian Helgeland that music simply didn’t match the tone of his film, he asked Stambler to write a new original score for his film which was recorded in late Feburary 2006
Streaming now on Love Film (It should be noted that the version I watched was the original theatrical version. A re-edited version, Payback:Straight Up was released in 2006 which was re-scored, re-shot and re-coloured so bears little resemblance in a lot of ways to the theatrical version.)