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NewCityNet Sado Melochism

By Ray Pride

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  "Payback" is the kind of movie that doesn't seem to know it has a big star in the middle of it.

Drawing from the same pulp novel as John Boorman's great 1967 "Point Blank," screenwriter Brian Helgeland's intermittently diverting directorial debut is intentionally spun from the same wiry strands as the work of such unpretentious journeymen as Don Siegel (there's even a sly reference to Siegel's "Charley Varrick" in a hotel's name). Mel Gibson plays Porter, a walking cipher whose every breath concerns reclaiming his honor, in the form of $70,000 cash taken from him in the aftermath of a heist. That's all that matters to Porter, and in his solipsistic world, he doesn't know why anything else should. While the tone veers from the cruel to the goony and never attains the stratospheric surrealism of Boorman's film, "Payback" fits nicely into producer-star Gibson's personal genre of thriller that mingles masochism and facetiousness.

The look and feel of the film is its greatest asset, compounding from Chicago location work and backlot setpieces a timeless, unnamed, dusty gunmetal and dun-colored metropolis. "What we wanted was something gritty looking, with gritty content but by no means taking itself seriously," the effervescent actor says, describing the movie he and Helgeland set out to make. After disagreements over the last act of the film, producer and director parted ways. "Any changes that were made were minor," Gibson insists. "Basically, the dog lives, okay? The tone of it, the dialogue, the casting, the look of it, the way the film went up to a certain point, that's Brian's film and he should wear it like a badge of honor."

I wondered what Gibson liked about the vague setting. "This is another Brian thing. He was deliberately ambiguous about time and place. To be specific would detract, I think. It's a bad, bad city with bad people and bad villains, the good guys are bad, the dogs are bad! The cigarettes will kill you quicker. For that kind of world, it's good that you don't know you're in Chicago or Los Angeles and you have a vague idea it's like the seventies, but, 'Wasn't that a 1989 car I just saw?' I like that."

He also liked playing the least bad man in a very bad world. "Porter's fun. He's a creature of extremes. He's obsessive, he's absurd like every other character here. He's Buster Keaton in hell. When you boil it down, he fulfills all the formulaic beats of a classic myth hero. Like those Don Siegel movies, 'Charley Varrick,' 'Dirty Harry,' or Peckinpah's 'The Getaway.' Porter's less than squeaky-clean. In fact, he's more than a little reprehensible. But this world allowed that, but we made sure he wasn't so reprehensible that the audience just can't give a hoot."

At the same time that Gibson swerves from the path of star vehicles like the "Lethal Weapon" series by redeeming the good name of the bad-ass bad guy, his production company, Icon, has quietly produced six films in the past year, including Atom Egoyan's next, "Felicia's Journey." Icon usually co-owns or owns its negatives outright, and has just started a U.K. distribution concern. Why has it worked out so well for Icon? "When we make a mistake, we don't look at it as getting burnt. A long time ago, we made a big joke out of it. We called it 'school fees.' We figure we won't do that again. It's just school fees. You start to anticipate them and then you can meander through the minefields."

Many big-name actors turn their characters into little suffering Christs, and I had to ask why Gibson was so fond of seeing his characters punished. He launches into a litany: "It's a purification rite, he has to go through the portals of purification before he can earn the right to take the golden prize." Now he grins at his self-seriousness. "Jason and the Argnoauts, y'know. He has to suffer for his art or crimes, I guess. Something huge. An obstacle. As well as being an obstacle, it's a task where he or the audience, based on their own personal id, and what could be more iddish - as opposed to Yiddish - as physical torture? As a kid, I don't want to hear stories about Bambi and butterflies landing on her shoulders. I wanted to hear the one about the giant that ate children. They're the stories you're coming back to, and having an industrial-strength pedicure is pretty heinous. Grimm's, c'mon. You have to have a conflict, some major transgression has to have transcended and enough calamity created that someone has to get there and right it somehow. Maybe this film doesn't fit that pattern, but at least Porter gets his equilibrium back in his morally reprehensible world. "

So there's no metaphor there for the real world? "Porter gets even, I don't. Karmic retribution takes its own course. I don't have to help it. Sooner or later, it's going to visit all of us for past transgressions." And again with the big famous grin.

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