Payback (1999)


Brian Helgeland directs Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry and Maria Bello in this adaptation of Richard Stark’s The Hunter, a book where a low level crim is left for dead and takes on a syndicate to get what’s owed to him; $70,000.

The Hunter is one of the greatest crime thrillers ever published. Parker (or Porter as he’s called here) is the genre’s finest anti-hero. Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Chow Yun-Fat and Jason Statham have all played successful variations of him. Hell, his DNA is in Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul’s Mike Ehrmantraut and Fargo the TV series’ Lorne Malvo. Career criminal, forward thinker and yet in the moment improviser, warped moral code, broken and beaten look hiding a steely focus and resolve to win. You can see what attracted Mel to the part at the height of his box office reign. He is great in the lead role. The nonchalance with which he delivers the line “Forgot my cigarettes” when returning to rescue Bello from a sticky situation is a thing of hard boiled beauty. And Payback is a very watchable Gibson vehicle. His crumpled smart suit, his bone crunching solutions to anyone who hinders him, his fatalist romantic streak – he is as gritty as unfixed asphalt. With its jazzy score keeping you up with the pace and bleach bypass colour scheme (it is a world of blues and greys like it stars eyes and hair are the defining palette), Payback should be a crime classic. But the tone is wobbly as fuck.There are too many broad comedy villians (Lucy Liu’s dominatrix triad being the key offender) and the reshoots to soften the end product are obvious. That silvery almost monochrome look is abandoned in later scenes, the archness of the dialogue vanishes. I’ve not yet seen the now available version of Payback that remains true to Helgeland’s original vision. In that version allegedly the dog dies, the head of the syndicate remains unseen, Gibson is brute to his treacherous wife. What we got served up at cinemas in 1999 is fun enough. Payback is the kinda movie whose errors become background flaws a few days after watching. The good stuff sticks in the long term memory, the concept is far stronger than the delivery. And Gibson all but in name revisited Parker / Porter in How I Spent My Summer Vacation. Will we get a third rough and tough adventure… fingers crossed.


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