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Where's Vic Tayback When You Need Him?

By James DiGiovanna

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  WHEN I WAS first told about this film I misheard the title and thought it would be an ode to my favorite actor of all time, Vic Tayback. Remember him from Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, where he played gruff-but-lovable short order cook Mel? And how about his performance as lovable-albeit-gruff short order cook Mel in the TV series Alice? Man, was that good. He also played a variety of drill sergeants, crime bosses and irate customers. I was so sad when he died before being able to play a dog catcher.

So anyway, Payback was not only not about Vic Tayback, it had no reference to him...unless it was in the gruff-but-lovable performance of Mel Gibson, who seemed to have had his face wired shut for this role.

Mel G. plays the extremely evil Porter, who, like Cher and Madonna, gets by on his looks. And only has one name.

It seems Porter had been shot six times and left for dead by his wife Lynn and his best friend Val. They also stole $70,000 from him. U.S. dollars, not that worthless Canadian crap.

So of course, he's pissed off. Gruff, even. As soon as he recovers from those nagging bullet wounds he begins to plot revenge.

In most movies, the main character is "likable." That way, when he "kills" his "enemies" we "root" for him. Here, instead, Mel is incessantly evil. He finds out that a crime syndicate has his money, so he starts to go after them.

For Porter, "going after" involves killing and beating anyone who knows where his money might be. To break up the almost ceaseless flow of violence, Porter also tries to reunite with his lost love, a hooker whose heart, oddly enough, is made of gold. She's played by the extremely fetching Maria Bello, who's apparently slumming here after her critically acclaimed role in Permanent Midnight.

The weird part about Porter is that he can callously kill dozens of goons, slam his wife against a wall, and blow up a car full of lowlifes, but he still gets all shy and mushy about the one night he got to do Bello's prostitute character for free. I think that Gibson put this into the story so as to tone down Porter's gruffness and make him more lovable. (Gibson actually fired writer/director Brian Helgeland mid-way through the shoot because he was worried that his character was too unpleasant.)

Anyway, the film is at its best in the comically over-indulgent violence and in the portrayal of the crime syndicate as wanna-be '80s-style businessmen. The three bosses of the syndicate are all played to parody by William Devane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson.

Kristofferson's eyes have become so tiny and wrinkled that he can only play high-powered criminals now, but he started out playing romantic leads, perhaps most notably in the 1974 Martin Scorcese film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. In Payback, he's just Mel Gibson's comic book-style nemesis, whereas in Alice he could stretch his acting muscles a bit more freely playing opposite Ellen Burstyn's "Alice" and Vic Tayback's short-order cook "Mel"....hey! Wait a minute....

OK, anyway, Payback is one of those films that's getting reviled by the critics while packing 'em in at the box office, and I can see why. The critics feel obliged to condemn anything that's this violent and has no redeeming message. On the other hand, the audiences see the violence as cartoony and campy, and the dialogue is so clichéd as to be comic, even hilarious at times. The overly refined friends who saw Payback with me were squirming in their seats and begging to leave, so I imagine that this one is not for everyone, but an exchange I had with another friend pretty much sums this film up. I told him the movie featured Ally McBeal star Lucy Liu in a leather bikini, and he said, "Oh, you mean it's a good movie."

Well, it may not be the tribute to the greatest character actor of Syrian descent to have starred in a TV series set in Arizona (I'm speaking, of course, of Vic Tayback...Check him out in classic teen film Loverboy, or in that episode of the original Star Trek where they go to the planet of 1930s Chicago Crime Bosses), but if by "good" you mean "excessively violent and sleazy," then yeah, it's a good movie.

Which reminds me of an anecdote about Vic Tayback. One time I had to get some photos of Vic for a project I was doing for a comic book company. I went all over Manhattan looking, and every movie memorabilia store I went to was devoid of Tayback. However, they all told me to go to the mysterious Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Material Store. So, finally, I did, descending into a one-room basement parlor where I was greeted by Mr. Ohlinger. I asked him for some Tayback, expecting to hear what I had heard at a dozen other stores, that they didn't carry his picture, and would I like to look at some photos of Tom Cruise instead. But Ohlinger said "You mean from when he was in Alice or from his guest appearance on Star Trek...nevermind, I'll just bring out the Tayback file." He plopped a thick binder of photos on the table, and I, surprised, told him how hard this stuff was to find. "Yeah," he said, "Tayback's a bitch."

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