Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

PAYBACK (1999) ***

Directed by Brian Helgeland. Written by Helgeland and Terry Hayes, from the novel "The Hunter," by Richard Stark. Photography, Ericson Core. Editing, Kevin Stitt. Production design , Richard Hoover. Music, Chris Boardman. Produced by Bruce Davey. Cast: Mel Gibson (Porter), Gregg Henry (Val), Maria Bello (Rosie), David Paymer (Stegman), Deborah Kara Unger (Lynn), William Devane (Carter), Bill Duke (Detective Hicks), Kris Kristofferson (Bronson), Lucy Liu (Pearl), James Coburn - uncredited, et al. A  Paramount release.110 minutes. R (much violence, kinky sex, language, dope)

Released at the same time, there's a movie called Simply Irresistible. Haven't seen it, don't know whether or not it 's irresistible. Mel Gibson, however, is. This may sound like a gushing fan's judgment, but I don't do gush and don't do fan. The opinion is objectively supported by the man's acting record and his versatility. It is buttressed too by Gibson as a producer, by his directorial debut (and performance) in the overlooked The Man Without  a Face, his helming of Braverheart (Best Picture Oscar). Then there's his unexpectedly fine job in the title role of Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet.

The now 43-year-old Mel (still quite young by male Hollywood standards) is an original presence - not only because his wife is expecting their 7th child!  Offhand, what comes to my mind is a soupcon of Cary Grant-ish appeal in many performances. Not all of them have been in winner movies, but there are enough combinations of film and acting to place Gibson in the constellation.

The two main pillars of Gibson's popularity -- up to Braveheart-- have been his Australian Mad Max pictures and the American Lethal Weapon series in which he plays mad cop Martin Riggs. But there's a lot more than just that.

Now his company has made Payback. Mel apparently took a big hand in shaping it.  It is so violent  and brutal (including gore and torture), so kinkily sexual (Sadism & Masochism) that perhaps some raters were tempted by an NC-17. A tricky work to judge. Action fans who love Gibson will applaud. Fans of just Gibson might say "ho-hum.". Haters of blood and guts; traditionalists;"nice movie" partisans;  many older viewers, will doubtlessly stay away.

The plot is simple: a tale of dishonor among thieves and revenge, a reinterpretation --not a remake-- of the now cultish Point Blank (1967) which came from the same book by Richard Stark (a pseudonym for Donald E. Westlake).

Gibson, called Porter (just one name) is a thief and all-around criminal. He is involved by his pal Val in a violent robbery of Orientals who regularly carry money for a mob, here referred to as The Outfit. The two men are aided by Porter's junkie wife Lynn. Lying Val had dangled to Porter a sum of up to half-a-million  though he knew full well that the gangsters always carried $140,000. Worse yet, Val and Lynn take Porter's portion and shoot him dead, or so they think.

Porter improbably survives. The underworld doctor who takes out the bullets surpasses in shabbiness and filth even the stock figures of earlier crime movies. He is closer to back-room abortionists.

The penniless, improbably fully healed man, with improbable dexterity picks a wallet, gets himself money, clothes and other necessities, sets on the road to recovery. Not of his health (that's a done deal) but of his half of $70,000, from Val.

Double and triple crosses abound. So do improbabilities. A couple of the latter can be tolerated in most films, but twenty or more improbabilities make one huge impossibility. Even so, because of Mel Gibson and the movie's vigor and momentum, aficionados will put up with big plot-holes and have some dirty fun following this "guy" flick.

For one thing, Porter narrates the movie in the tough voice-over  style of earlier (especially 1940s) films noirs, say, like Dick Powell's Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet. A bonus of this device is to reassure the audience that the protagonist has survived. For another, there is a quota of Gibsonisms in jokes and humor of speech and behavior. While some work and others don't, there is enough irony to keep us going.

Then there's the outrageous dominatrix Pearl (Lucy Liu  of "Ally Mc Beal"), a high-price call girl and hoodlum associate who gets such high kicks from S & M that she steals all the scenes she's in.

Porter's journey to recover his 70 grand takes him through a full array of situations and characters, starting with his stoned-out wife, a heroin-delivery boy (whose nose ring Porter yanks out (an homage to Jack Nicholson's slashed nose in "Chinatown"?), a small-timer (nicely weasely David Paymer), to a black and white duo of corrupt cops (an upending of Lethal Weapon), to Val and to Val's bosses in The Outfit. Persistent Porter gets to the hierarchy of the Big Boys.

Amusingly, Porter keeps correcting those who quote him as claiming the full $140.000. He only wants his half back. Thieve's honor for a change?  Suave mobster James Coburn, whose chic clothes and luggage gives an extra meaning to "outfit" is shocked at the modest request. "My suits cost more than that!" Coburn, smooth and delightful as ever, cringes when Top Man Kris Kristofferson, for reasons I cannot reveal,  has captive Porter savagely treated and tells him "I'll make you last for weeks. I'll give you blood transfusions, if needed, to keep you alive."

The female element is enriched by Rosie, a fancy prostitute connected with the Outfit,  erstwhile and now again Porter's girlfriend. Though not the traditional Girl Friday, she assists the man and vice-versa. And her character implies (but does develop) the distantly Godardian touch that she's the kind of woman one can rent, but not buy. The saddest moment in the film for me was when her guard dog got shot in a fracas, but to my boundless relief, he recovered. Miraculously. Just like Porter.

Mel Gibson plays what is essentially a sociopath, so bloody but unbowed against all odds that he does get your sympathy. Then again, the sympathy is continuously distracted by our having to suspend our disbelief. Just about everything Porter does, he does so well that unbelievability crops up in scene after scene.

The makers of Payback clearly had the ambition to make a tale for all seasons. It takes place in an unnamed, fabricated city (much of it shot in Chicago), in a recent but still unfathomable period. Moody hues  are used. The composite look of the place and its artifacts, some archaic expressions of the 1930s, the tone of older Warners or RKO thrillers, modernistic touches, anonymous contemporary cars but of no discernible decade, pointedly located dial telephones and more anachronisms will puzzle audiences that know their cinema.

Director and co-writer Brian Helgeland (b. 1961)  has scripted L.A.Confidential, Kevin Costner's  The Postman, Conspiracy Theory (starring Gibson).  Payback is his first big directorial job. Gibson, dissatisfied with the finished film, made changes, shot new scenes, re-shot extant ones, added 20 minutes-- partly, 'tis said, to make his role more likable. This may or may not have added to Helgeland's problems with disconnections, gaps and loose threads. The result, however, warts and all, has enough comic-book inventiveness to keep some of us taking it all in, in a silly, un-bored way.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel