Rated R - Running time: 1:41 - Released 2/5/99

I'm not usually a fan of movies whose main element is gunfire, but I have to admit that Brian Helgeland's background as a writer (L.A. Confidential, Conspiracy Theory) helped him immensely in his big-screen directorial debut. Payback is his adaptation of the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake, which was also the inspiration for 1967's Point Blank. Starring Mel Gibson playing another tough guy with a strange sense of humor (his trademark), Payback is not just a showcase for Gibson's one-liners and marksmanship. It is populated by quirky characters who are more than a little fleshed out. Though not as off the wall as the type of folks who populate Quentin Tarantino's films, and not as well developed as those in films by Coppola or Scorsese, this group is actually fun to watch, and the story is complex enough to be interesting.

Gibson is Porter, a professional thief and all-around bad guy. We are shown this by an opening sequence where he steals from homeless people, uses stolen credit cards to purchase illegal weapons, and has lunch in a diner without leaving a tip. After collaborating with a friend named Val Resnick (Gregg Henry) to steal $140,000, he prepares to split the money 50-50. But Val wants more than $70,000, because he has an outstanding loan with the crime syndicate of which he is a member, so he shoots Porter and leaves him for dead. But Porter is not dead, and that is Val's mistake.

Porter spends the rest of the film working his way up the corporate ladder of the syndicate to get his 70 grand. After finding Val (with a high-priced, sado-masochistic prostitute named Pearl, played to the hilt by Ally McBeal's Lucy Alexis Liu), he reunites with an old girlfriend (Maria Bello) who helps him find Val's bosses. He meets the cool and collected Carter (William Devane), the brash and countrified Fairfax (James Coburn), and finally, the top tamale himself, Bronson (Kris Kristofferson). Regularly eluding the henchmen and brazenly threatening the bosses, he amazes everyone by his relentless pursuit of a mere $70,000. Meanwhile, he also must evade the guys from whom he and Val stole the money, and a couple of crooked detectives who demand part of the booty in return for not blowing the whistle.

Gibson, like many actors, has made a profitable career playing the same character over and over. Though William Wallace (Braveheart) was a nice departure, his Porter is a warmed-over version of Riggs (Lethal Weapon), who was a cleaned-up version of Mad Max. But maybe the fact that his company, Icon, produced Payback made him see to it that the film had a well-balanced cast. Helgeland's script has him performing super-human stunts when he has been beaten, shot, and blown up, but the careful balance between action and humor does a great deal to make it a film that is worth watching.****

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews

See FilmQuips Archive