At one time not too long ago, Mel Gibson was one of the world’s biggest celebrities. His name was mentioned in the same breath as Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, and Brad Pitt. Over the past decade, however, Gibson’s fame has faded as he’s turned more towards directing (The Passion of Christ and Apocalpyto) and getting involved in a notorious incident that has turned him into a near pariah in Hollywood. In 1999, Gibson starred in a movie that sort of went against the type of roles the actor was known for. That movie was Payback, which was Brian Helgeland’s directorial debut following his Oscar-winning work on the screenplay for L.A. Confidential. For a megawatt star like Mel Gibson, playing a cold, gritty antihero was a risky career move and I think that explains why Gibson eventually took the project away from Helgeland. You see, there are two versions of this film. There is the theatrical version, which I review here, and there is the director’s cut that was eventually released on DVD a couple of years ago. Gibson reportedly was unhappy with the downbeat, dark, and uncompromising tone of the film. I’m sure he got a little worried that audiences wouldn’t accept him as a cold-hearted asshole killer so he decided to take over the movie and change its ending. I would be lying if I told you the end result sucks because it doesn’t. Admittedly, I have not seen the director’s cut, which I hear is also very good. However, the theatrical version of Payback is an underrated work of achievement that I regard as one of Mel Gibson’s best films.

Payback is a noirish action movie about a career criminal named Porter (Gibson), who just got screwed out of $70,000 he stole from some Asian gangsters. The man who stole his cash belongs to a mob syndicate, who now has Porter’s cash. Porter’s only goal is to go through the ranks of the syndicate to get his $70,000 back. Along the way, he leaves a bloody mess of bodies and reignites a romantic relationship with a hooker with a heart of gold (is there any other?).

I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. Its dark, grimy, excellently paced, well told, and it contains wonderful performances from a bunch of great actors. Film noir is tough to do without getting cliche and trying to do a fresh take on the genre is even more difficult. I think few writers will attempt noir for its very difficulty, but among those whose qualifications cannot be doubted is Brian Helgeland. Who would deny that L.A. Confidential is among the best films of the past 20 years and one of the best film noirs ever made? I didn’t have any doubt Helgeland could write another great film noir with Payback. This film doesn’t approach the quality of L.A. Confidential, but it stands on its own as a very good film. It starts us off with a great opening that tells you everything you need to know about Porter and it immediately establishes the tone of the film. Porter is not a man to be fucked with, especially when it involves his cash.

Obviously tailored to his screen qualities, Payback has a lot of Gibson’s influence, which is not something I would have expected to fit in with the film’s style or Helgeland’s intent. The action contains some slapstick, cartoonish effects that we’ve seen in the Lethal Weapon films. In addition, you can see where Gibson limits the extent of his character’s callousness. Through his tough guy, cold-hearted facade is a caring person and we see this when he patches up his girlfriend’s wounded dog, protects his girlfriend, and limits his cash demand only to what is owed to him rather than what he could easily take. He’s basically a ruthless man who has an inner code of honor. I didn’t mind seeing this because this movie is, after all, a Mel Gibson movie and just seeing Gibson play something so against type is satisfying enough. At the same time, however, he also doesn’t approach the same level of bad-assery of Dirty Harry or Charles Bronson. He’s more like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney than the antiheroes of the 1970s and I would have much rather have seen Gibson embody the 70’s variety more than the 30’s variety.

This film has a great, GREAT supporting cast of actors. Maria Bello as the hooker girlfriend looks like damaged goods who’s lived a rough life. Lucy Liu as the dominatrix sets the standard for all future Asian dominatrix roles. David Paymer as the low-life huckster is the kind of slimy weasel you see hanging out at dumpy bowling alleys and back alley card rooms. William Devane and the late, great Charles Coburn as the mob associates of the big boss are exactly the kind of professional and experienced pros you would imagine running the day-to-day operations of a mob operation. Finally, we have Kris Kristofferson as the big boss man. On the outside he looks like a friendly and reasonable person who can’t possibly harm anyone. The torture scene at the end will convince you otherwise.

Payback is a fun movie. Its a straightforward, action, revenge, noirish thriller that succeeds on many levels. Its a film that wasn’t wholly embraced by the critics, but I think its a movie that over time gets better appreciated by both fans and critics. Again, I have not seen the director’s cut, but I have heard that it’s quite different than this version and its something I hope to see soon.

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