Payback

on February 05, 1999 by Wade Major
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   After a troubled, high-profile production that was rumored at one stage to have been taken over and extensively reshot by star Mel Gibson, the completed "Payback" may actually seem like something of a letdown, neither as brilliant nor as awful as previously rumored. An intermittently engaging crime thriller that fuses elements of '30s era film noir with '70s era exploitation, the film is first and foremost a showpiece for Gibson, who steps out of his usual "good guy" shoes for a shot at playing a murderous, vengeful hood in search of stolen loot.
   Betrayed and left for dead by his smack-addicted wife (Deborah Kara Unger) and heist partner Val (Gregg Henry), Porter (Gibson) makes a speedy recovery, then heads out to claim his $70,000 share. After hooking up with an old flame/hooker (Maria Bello), he dives headlong into a gauntlet consisting of crooked cops (Bill Duke and Jack Conley), mid-level mobsters (William Devane and James Coburn), a weasely snitch (David Paymer), ex-partner Val and a squad of Chinese thugs, leaving a wasteland of destruction and corpses in his wake before working his way up to the crime syndicate's top dog, Bronson (Kris Kristofferson), presumably the only man who can "authorize" payment of his $70,000.
   Apart from two or three genuinely clever twists, "Payback"--adapted from the Richard Stark novel "The Hunter" by Helgeland and "The Road Warrior" co-scripter Terry Hayes--is surprisingly derivative, although not unwatchable, salvaged by the overall stylishness of the execution and a grittily compelling performance from Gibson. As Porter, Gibson owns the film wholesale, making otherwise pedestrian contrivances seem almost credible while investing what should be a thoroughly reprehensible character with a twisted integrity that, at times, seems almost laudable.
   Viewers expecting a more pyrotechnic actioner, however, will likely be disappointed by the workmanlike pacing and dearth of major action scenes. Most of the film's thrills occur in fits and starts, bridging the gaps between the noir-like connect-the-dots detective work.
   Praiseworthy technical credits include Chris Boardman's retro-funk, Lalo Schifrin-esque score and cinematographer Ericson Core's grainy, monochromatic vision of urban and human sludge. Starring Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, David Paymer, William Devane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson. Directed by Brian Helgeland. Written by Brian Helgeland and Terry Hayes. Produced by Bruce Davey. A Paramount release. Action/Thriller. Rated R for strong violence, language, drug and sexual content. Running time: 101 min
Tags: tarring Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, David Paymer, William Devane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson. Directed by Brian Helgeland. Written by Brian Helgeland, Terry Hayes, Produced by Bruce Davey, Paramount, Action, Thriller
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