Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Settling the Score

By Debbie Gilbert

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  Writer-director Brian Helgeland probably had a lot of aspirations for Payback, his cinematic adaptation of the Richard Stark novel The Hunter. At various times he apparently conceived of it as a classic film noir; a Godfather-type mob picture; a clever Tarantino-style shoot-’em-up. What he finally arrived at, however, is something Hollywood calls a high-concept movie, meaning that its premise can be summed up in one sentence.

Payback’s concept goes like this: A career criminal is cheated out of $70,000 and left for dead, and now he’ll stop at nothing to get revenge. That’s it. That’s the entire movie. No nuances, no subplots, and not much to keep the audience interested. Most of the acting and dialogue is on the level of those cheesy ’80s cop shows like T.J. Hooker.

You’d expect a better script from Helgeland, who won praise as the screenwriter of L.A. Confidential, and from his partner Terry Hayes, who co-wrote The Road Warrior. Helgeland’s direction, in his behind-the-camera debut, is also a little shaky; he doesn’t know how to move a scene along, and the actors seem to spend a lot of time just standing around.

Payback certainly looks like film noir. It was shot in a seedy older section of Chicago, and the film stock was put through a process known as bleached bypass to wash out most of the color, giving everything a bluish cast – about as close to black-and-white as a commercial movie can get away with. Mel Gibson, as the story’s protagonist, Porter, does voiceover narration in a deadpan rasp, at the bass end of his vocal register. He smokes like a chimney, as does everyone else in the movie. He’s cynical and sleazy, as is everyone around him. The grittiness is there, but mood alone is not quite enough to carry this story.

The tale begins when Porter robs some organized-crime thugs, netting $140,000 for him and his accomplice Val (Gregg Henry). But Val takes Porter’s share and leaves him writhing in a pool of blood, shot twice in the back. He then drives off with Porter’s wife and pumps her full of heroin until she eventually ODs. It takes five months for Porter to recover, and then he’s back, determined to kill Val (who’s now working for the crime syndicate) and get the $70,000 he believes is due him, even if he has to blast his way through the mob hierarchy.

Porter has few redeeming qualities. He picks pockets and steals from panhandlers. His morals are almost nonexistent, though he does have a disturbingly twisted notion of right and wrong. But you can’t help feeling a bit sorry for him. He doesn’t smile or laugh; his eyes are world-weary and devoid of hope. The quest for revenge is all that keeps him going. This makes him the most dangerous kind of man: With nothing left to lose, there’s no risk he won’t take.

Payback has been criticized for its reportedly excessive violence, but in fact it’s the same sort of gratuitous, cartoonish bloodshed that permeates all of the Lethal Weapon movies. The difference is that Payback doesn’t have the lighthearted buddy-cop humor to balance out the violence and make it seem more palatable. And this actually makes Payback a better film than the last couple of Lethal Weapon sequels (though that’s not saying much), because it forgoes cloying cuteness in favor of unrelenting darkness.

This works well as far as Gibson is concerned. If you’re tired of seeing him mug for the camera, here’s an opportunity to catch him in a straight, non-joking role. He’s virtually unmatched when it comes to expressing pain and despair, making him an ideal choice for Porter.

The other characters, however, carry no weight. William Devane, James Coburn, and Kris Kristofferson, as higher-ups in the syndicate, all come across as rather silly, and Maria Bello, as the clichéd hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who helps Porter with his revenge scheme and is the closest thing he has to a friend, doesn’t do anything a thousand other actresses couldn’t have managed. The real scene-stealer is Lucy Liu as Pearl, a sadomasochistic prostitute who revels in sensual delight as she whacks her clients. Just about everyone in this movie is mean and nasty and corrupt – including the cops – with the obvious purpose being to make Porter look almost good by comparison.

Payback is not a particularly enjoyable film, but if you like crime movies full of shootings and beatings, or if you’re a fan of the noir genre, or if you just like to look at Mel Gibson’s blue eyes, you might find it worth your while. – Debbie Gilbert

Hilary & Jackie

It was fortuitous that Jacqueline du Pré played the cello. Du Pré, the subject along with her sister Hilary in the biopic Hilary and Jackie, was a child star whose talent took her all over the world, but her career ended at a young age when the symptoms of multiple sclerosis made playing impossible. The music born of her bow and cello punctuates her triumphs and follows her to her lowest. If she had played the banjo, it would have been a totally different movie.

The movie begins when Hilary and Jackie are little girls in England. Their mother encourages the girls to express themselves through music. Initially, it’s Hilary’s flute-playing that takes the girls places and wins the gleam in her mother’s eye. But then Jackie starts practicing and practicing hard, so that the dynamic switches, and Hilary is left in the wake of her sister’s fame. As Jackie tours, Hilary abandons her career to get married, have children, and live in the country.

Jackie returns home mentally shaken and asks that Hilary do her a favor. For curious reasons, she wants to sleep with Hilary’s husband. Hilary convinces her husband to do the deed and the three of them live together in an emotionally fragile state until Hilary bounces Jackie out. Jackie goes back to her husband and her cello, but she pays for her sins when she loses control of her body due to MS.

The part of Jackie, played by Emily Watson, is made for Oscar nominations. It’s a physically taxing role. Jackie throws herself into her playing, her head moving back and forth, so that she’s covered with sweat by the end of the concert. Then as the disease takes over, she becomes all shakes and flailing arms. As Hilary, Rachel Griffiths is the steadying force, the wall on which Jackie flings herself.

While there is some humor in Hilary and Jackie, particularly when Jackie tries in vain to lose her cello, it is pure melodrama. Hilary and Jackie are at once joined at the hip and as far apart as two siblings can be. There is an area between the closeness and the distance that doesn’t really connect, leaving the audience to wonder what exactly the filmmakers were getting at. It feels like something is missing, but the music is great. – Susan Ellis

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