On the posters, they said, “Get ready to root for the bad guy”. A remake of the New Hollywood era, John Boorman led Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, Payback was its stylish 1999 counterpart, dismissive of the motifs displayed back in 1967.
Brian Helgeland’s Payback is, essentially, a revenge film, blending between the channels of crime thriller, neo-noir and black comedy. Starring Mel Gibson as heist thief Porter, Payback presents the story of one man’s mission to get back his $70,000 share of an almost-fatal robbery. In showing this story, Payback is gritty as f*ck at times – early on, especially. It’s suggested that the viewer “root for the bad guy” amongst bad guys. Not one man is clean in Payback and that establishes a troublesome moral judgement for a contemporary viewer, but this was routine for audiences back in the 90s – Pulp Fiction‘s Jules and Vince were gangsters, assassins, whatever, but we still loved them. In Porter’s quest for his money, he has to get through this guy to get to another guy, then this guy to get to another guy, and so on… With small-time dealers and law enforcement watching his back, Payback could very well be viewed like a live-action adaptation of an early Grand Theft Auto video game. Porter having to essentially face one boss after another in order to claim his reward and finish his story is quite reminiscent of crime role-playing-games itself.
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As the second adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s novel, The Hunter, and remake of the first film adaptation, Point Blank, there is an expectancy to compare films. The hilarity in comparing both Point Blank and Payback is that the former exists as an ice cool mystery thriller, placing the viewer in debate of what is ‘real’ within the story presented. Payback starts as a stylish crime film, quirky here and there, but then there is a transcendence into jet black, black comedy almost to a ridiculous level come the third act. Adding to the cinematic circus of Payback, there is a defining (maybe OTT) grey visual established by bleach bypass, though the tine is not enough to result in Payback being a black and white film. Hipster cinematographers.
In Mel Gibson’s post-Braveheart career, Payback brought a much needed refreshment to his action roles. Having seriously worn-out the Riggs character in Lethal Weapon 4 only one year earlier, a variation was needed, thus his Porter character in Payback. Porter may have maintained the Riggs desire to get beat down, but he possessed an ooze of sketchiness in the form of crime, never apparent in the Riggs character. Porter was a professional criminal out for revenge. Payback‘s ensemble cast also included Bill Duke (“MAC!” from Predator) as one of two bent cops, Kris Kristofferson (singer from a previous A Star is Born) as the hierarchy of villains, and Maria Bello as a femme fatale.
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1999 was a groundbreaking year for many films, both good and bad. Sadly, Payback doesn’t live within the positive end of the spectrum amongst the likes of Fight Club and The Matrix, nor the negative end amongst the likes of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Even within the spectrum of Mel Gibson’s career as an actor, Payback does not sit amongst the best, such as Mad Max 2 and Lethal Weapon, nor the worst, such asMad Max Beyond Thunderdome and The Expendables 3. In these instances, Payback can be regarded as bang average, though as an individual film, Payback is much better than that.
Looking back, Payback can be read as a beta or prototype for a 90’s Quentin Tarantino or Coen brothers film – the characters, the dialogue, the utterly bizarre situations in the protagonist’s journey etc. The foundations are certainly there, but overall, Payback just lacks that killer touch found in the likes of Jackie Brown, L.A. Confidential (written by Helgeland!) or even Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. In 2006, Helgeland released his director’s cut, Straight Up: The Director’s Cut, differing significantly from the theatrical cut, though in the years since 2006, the legacy of Payback hasn’t quite been revolutionised or redefined by this alternate cut.