Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Payback

By Marc Savlov

FEBRUARY 8, 1999: 

D: Brian Helgeland; with Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, David Paymer, Lucy Liu, Deborah Kara Unger, William Devane, Bill Duke, Kris Kristofferson, James Coburn. (R, 102 min.)

Here's the set up: Bagman and driver Val and Porter (Henry, Gibson) steal $140,000 from an Asian syndicate, and then Val double-crosses Porter, steals his cut, and runs off with his wife (Bello), leaving Porter for dead in a parking garage with a bunch of .38 slugs in his hide and a crack in his head. The only trouble? Porter, like the proverbial bad penny, just keeps coming back, much to the dismay of his ex-partner and those unlucky enough to be in control of his missing cash flow. Based on the Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark) novel The Hunter (which was also made into the 1967 film Point Blank), Payback mines the gritty, flinty conventions of heist-and-vendetta flicks like a streamlined pro, all rough edges and washed out images. Gibson reverts almost to his primeval Mad Max days as the unstoppable, amoral Porter, a wandering Ronin intent only on getting his cut. With his junkyard-dog good looks and scrappy leather jacket hanging off-kilter on his frame, Porter looks like the gutter come to nasty life. That he's Payback's protagonist says less about his Homeric qualities than it does about the rest of the film's morally bankrupt cast, which includes Porter's junkie wife (Bello), weaselly cab Mafia honcho Stegman (Paymer, excellent as always), Porter's trick-turning ex-flame Lynn (Unger), and assorted other roughhousers. Screenwriter Helgeland, coming off the critical success of L.A. Confidential and the commercial wreck of Costner's The Postman, makes his directing debut this time out and does an alarmingly bang-up job. Payback has a slight story; there's really not much going on here except for this dog-tired, three-time-loser trying desperately to get his money back, but Helgeland whips it up into a monumental battle of wills: Porter vs. The City. What city? We're never told, but this steaming, befouled metropolitan slag heap bears more than a passing resemblance to the Dark Knight's fabled Gotham (you get the idea, though, that even superheroes might want to steer clear of this Porter guy). Production designer Richard Hoover deserves particular praise for creating the look and feel of a giant, post-industrialized hellhole for Porter to chase around in. It's not exactly the Detroit of Robocop or Carpenter's New York escape, but Payback's milieu is as formidable a character as anyone sporting an exit wound onscreen. Helgeland's film positively seethes with bad vibrations; it's kicky, nasty urban sang-froid with pointy little teeth and a serious case of the angries, an existential hand grenade disguised as a heist film.
3.5 stars


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