Directed by Brian Helgeland
Cast: Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, David Paymer, William Devane, Lucy Alexis Liu, Bill Duke, Deborah Kara Unger, Kris Kristofferson.
1999 102 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, sexual situations, and blood).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 6, 1999.
"Payback," Brian Helgeland's inauspicious directing debut (coincidentally, he previously penned the award-winning screenplay for 1997's "L.A. Confidential"), is a wildly uneven and thoroughly unpleasant revenge thriller that takes one idea---a movie with non-stop violence, death, and villains---and runs with it, or should I say, barely manages to crawl away with it.
Mel Gibson, in yet another disappointing picture ("Conspiracy Theory" and "Lethal Weapon 4," anyone?), stars as the reprehensible villain/hero, Porter, a man who becomes determined to get his 50% share of $140,000, which he stole in a robbery, back when his partner-in-crime (Gregg Henry) and drug-addicted wife (Deborah Kara Unger) double-cross him, shoot him, and leave him for dead. Porter is not dead, however---not by a long shot---as he quickly rehabilitates and, along with his loyal prositute girlfriend, Rosie (Maria Bello), sets out to make everyone involved in the scam pay.
The tagline for "Payback" is, "get ready to root for the bad guy," and sure enough, this is true, as pretty much every significant character who appears is crooked in some way. I wouldn't have a problem with this offbeat detail if the painfully thin story had been of any interest, but it wasn't, and therefore, I found myself having an especially laborious time investing myself into a wide array of character that have absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. No attempt is made to flesh the roles into three-dimensional characters, and there are no vacant signs that anyone has any sort of humanity in them. Just because the protagonist, a "bad guy," is played by Mel Gibson doesn't mean I will "root for him," and I didn't. Quite the contrary, every person in the movie deserved to die a gory death (although some of them did, anyway, just to spice up the dull proceedings).
Since none of the respectable actors in "Payback" actually have human beings to play, only one performance managed to stand out. Lucy Alexis Liu (of T.V.'s "Ally McBeal"), who plays a spicy S&M dominatrix, brightens up every scene she is in, and has a definite flair for comedy, something I would have liked to have seen more of, since most of the humor fell with a resounding splat. Meanwhile, Gibson, who is perfectly fine here, sleepwalks through a role that is not the least bit challenging. Unger, who made an impression in 1997's "The Game," is surprisingly wasted and it is difficult to see why she took such a part since she disappears ten minutes in, and only has two purproses: (1) to get high on heroin, and (2) because she plays a key part in an early flashback. Finally, Kris Kristofferson appears in a throwaway role during the climax, and this unnecessary plot development sticks out like a sore thumb (tellingly, he didn't appear in the original cut of the film, but was cast when extensive reshoots took place months later).
Like most action movies, the star often takes a licking but keeps on ticking. In the course of the 102-minute running time of "Payback," Porter is shot three times in the back, hit by a van, beaten up, and has his feet smashed with a sledgehammer. And guess what? Not only does he survive the whole ordeal, but he is happy-go-lucky in the penultimate sequence (and can still walk!), even though he looks like he had recently substituted for a punching bag.
"Payback" is not, in any way, an entertaining film, even though I am sure the makers hoped it would be with all the graphic carnage that goes on, but take away that violence and what you are basically left with is a blank screen. Perhaps director Helgeland would have been smart to consider this, so he could have at least added a few worthwhile elements, like a fresh storyline and characters whom you could even remotely stand to be around for a few hours.
©1999 by Dustin Putman