Payback (1999)

“‘Always be greatful for what you get,’ rule number one.”

Dark and stylish but also a lot of fun, today’s movie Payback actually has a pretty interesting behind-the-scenes story. Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I first saw it back when it was released in 1999. I did, however, really enjoy it. If I’m remembering correctly, I saw this movie in the theater, then probably another two or three times within a year of its release on DVD. So I was a big fan, but then I sort of forgot about it until recently. However, the flim recently popped-up as a recommended film on Netfilx, so I decided that it was high time I give it another look.

The film stars Mel Gibson as Porter, a violent criminal, and the consummate anti-hero. Here’s a synopsis from IMDb:

Porter is bad, but his neighbors are worse. Street-wise and tough, an ex-marine, he is betrayed by a one-time partner, and shot in the back by his junkie wife. He survives and returns, looking to recover his share from the robbery of an Asian crime gang. The money has passed into the hands of “the Outfit”, a slick gangster organization that runs the city. He has to make his way through a world populated by heroin dealers, prostitutes, sado-masochists, gunmen and crooked cops, a place where torture is a way of life. His only friend is a former employer, a prostitute, and her loyalty is in question, given she now works for the Outfit. He makes good early progress, but then falls into the hands of Fairfax, the crime boss.

Despite the punchline he has become now, it’s key to remember just how awesome Mel Gibson was in the 90’s. This movie, in a way, represents the end of that apex. Gibson’s Porter is mean, and driven, but not without a trace of humor. We get just enough of a sense of humanity from the character that we’re able to, as the tag-line suggests, “root for the bad guy.” Maria Bello co-stars as Rosie, the high-class hooker with a heart-of-gold who is Porter’s only friend in the world. This is not, of course, in any way an original character type, but Bello makes it work. This is probably helped by the fact that she’s not tasked with a whole lot of screen time. This movie is about Porter and his decisions, not hers.

The interesting back-story I referred to is that apparently first-time director Brian Helgeland, wanted to take the film in a very different and darker direction, making Porter a much less sympathetic character. The director’s cut was released in 2006, and ism by all accounts, essentially a different movie. So I might consider it an option for future viewing here. However, as I’ve yet to see it, I can only comment on the film as it was originally released.

Here’s the thing, while I’m not normally a fan of studios mucking about with movies “to make them better.” Largely because I don’t think it usually works, I think Payback works really well. Its gritty and stylish, yet it it doesn’t wallow in its style. It drives along, introduces an interesting cast of characters, gives them a moment, then gets right to a clever conclusion. I liked the film. It’s definitely worth seeing.

[Payback (1999) – Directed by Brian Helgeland – Rated R for strong violence, language, and drug and sexual content]

OM|ED Rating: Worth Seeing