Movie Review – Payback (1999) / Payback: Straight Up (2006)
by NIR SHALEV
After writing the screenplays to L.A. Confidential and Conspiracy Theory (both 1997), Brian Helgeland wrote a screenplay for a movie called Payback. Payback is based on the novel “The Hunter” by famed mystery author Donald E. Westlake. The novel had been earlier transformed into a film called Point Blank (1967); that version was directed by John Boorman (Deliverance) and starred Lee Marvin. The second version starred Mel Gibson and was directed as well as written by Helgeland.
Payback tells the story of a gangster named Porter (Mel Gibson) who was working alongside his wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) and his friend Val Resnick (Gregg Henry) until one day, shortly after stealing $140,000 from the Chinese mob, he was shot in the back repeatedly by Lynn and beaten by Resnick. Left for dead, Porter managed to find a discreet mob doctor and recover. A few years pass and Porter reappears in Chicago seeking revenge.
His revenge begins by paying Lynn a visit. He notices that she’d become a heroin addict and after roughing her up because he’s still angry at her, he leaves only to later find her dead from an overdose. To find Resnick, he follows clues that lead him to the shady drug dealer named Arthur Stegman (Bill Paymer) who’d been selling drugs to Lynn for months. Porter then finds out that Resnick had given the stolen money to a crime syndicate called The Outfit. His beef is now with The Outfit: they don’t want to give him his cut of $70,000.
Porter proceeds to climb The Outfit’s ladder of command, eliminating everybody in his path with the help of an old acquaintance and Outfit prostitute, Rosie (Maria Bello). The head honcho is a woman named Bronson who invariably communicates with Porter as a disembodied voice on the other end of a speaker-phone. James Coburn is seen for approximately five minutes in a rather comic scene and William Devane also has a nice scene, but the show is entirely Mel Gibson and Gregg Henry’s.
If you saw Payback in the theater in 1999, then you’re probably thinking that the above plot description isn’t quite right. In fact, what I’ve been describing is the Director’s Cut version that was released on DVD a few years back. When the film was originally completed Gibson, who was also the producer in addition to being the star, told Helgeland that audiences were not ready for the finished product. Helgeland was forced to re-shoot many sequences and the last 35 minutes of the film were replaced entirely. The new ending even made room for two new characters: Bronson, transformed into a man (now played by Kris Kristofferson) of flesh and blood, and Bronson’s son, who is introduced only to be kidnapped by Porter in a conventional plot twist that exists entirely in the 3rd act of the Theatrical Cut. The Theatrical Cut did not contain half of the killings and shootings that the Director’s Cut contains. The Director’s Cut adds the killing of a dog.
There are many differences between the Theatrical Cut of the film and the Director’s Cut even beyond the differences in the plot. The Theatrical Cut was a lot funnier; any segment that provided audiences with a chuckle in the Theatrical Cut is no longer funny in the Director’s Cut, even though the actors’ delivery of the dialogue is exactly the same. The cinematography in the Theatrical Cut had a blue tint to it which stylized the film to add a sort of “graphic novel” aesthetic to the city of Chicago, stripping away visual grittiness for marketing reasons. The Director’s Cut does not have this blue tint, but instead carries a certain green to it, evident mostly in dark shadows. Similarly, the soundtrack for the Director’s Cut was redesigned to fit the newly morbid atmosphere.
The Director’s Cut pays a terrific homage to the gritty gangster and “cops and robbers” films from the 1970s and the city of Chicago is an ideal setting because of its “old school” aesthetics. Having watched this film several times I notice new things with every viewing. Recently I noticed that all the cars in the film are at least 2 decades old and all of the phones that we see are, except for the payphones, rotary phones; I did not spot a single cell phone. Another thing that makes the movie seem like it was made in an earlier age is that everybody is smoking everywhere. Porter most especially is spewing smoke onto everyone’s face constantly. He is also toting a Magnum pistol and grimacing all the time. He definitely belongs in this film that feels like it was designed to exist in the 1970s.
I liked the film when I saw it in the theater a decade back. I laughed with it and thought it was a fun ride. But when I heard that the Director’s Cut was a completely different film I simply had to buy it and find out. I have now watched the Director’s Cut several times and MUCH prefer it to the original because of its throwback aesthetic and because it takes itself seriously as a gritty crime thriller, and is not just a conventional Hollywood actioner.