It has been said that revenge is a dish best served cold. For fiction it has been a constant source of story lines since Biblical times. Of course, Hollywood has a long line of tales of men who would rather get even than get mad at a wrong done to them whether perceived or real. Typically in a film there has to be some redeeming quality about the man seeking revenge. After all the audience wants a hero that is always on the side of what is right. More recently the anti-hero has become popular in film. Combine these archetypes and stir in liberal quantities of action and grit and you have ‘Payback’. In this flick there are no good guys, only bad guys and even worse guys. Director Brian Helgeland doesn’t make excuses for his nefarious characters, they are all criminals. While this normally would make it difficult for the audience to sympathize with any of them the film does manage to pull you in with sheer action. While that is not enough for a great film, it does make for an entertaining on. Under the right circumstances the viewers can cheer on a bad guy as long as there is a glimmer of moral high ground for him to stand. This film is a remake of the 1967 action film, ‘Point Blank’ staring Lee Marvin but unlike many remakes of new classics this one can stand on its own. This is in part due to the universal nature of the central theme.
Porter is a career criminal expert in the highly specialized field of mid to high end heists. One job started out much as any do with by stealing $140,000 from the Chinese Mob. Porter was joined on the job by his wife, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) and his psycho-sadist partner, Val Resnick (Gregg Henry) pull off the job but things swiftly turn bad. As happens all so often in films like this Resnick decides that having all the money is better than half and he shoots Porter. Resnick also makes the perennial mistake of not making sure Porter is dead. It takes over five months but Porter recovers and is not very happy about those that betrayed him and took his $70,000 share of the heist. His only ally in his quest for vengeance is his girl friend, Rosie (Maria Bello). Okay, he is still technically married but when your wife tries to kill you most would agree the marriage is in trouble anyway. Rosie has some advantages in his ultimate plot. She is a call girl with certain ties to an organized crime syndicate, The Outfit. At one time Porter drove Rosie to her various clients and his growing relationship with her was one reason Lynn had for wanting him dead. The Outfit really doesn’t see things the same way as Porter does and immediately dispatches people to kill him. Among the more colorful is a dominatrix named Pearl (Lucy Liu) who takes a lot of pleasure in beating down men, especially Porter whenever the opportunity arises. There is a sort of imperative for the Outfit to stop Porter since in the intervening time Resnick has joined the ranks of ‘made men’. With the help of the full share of the heist he was also able to pay off a $130,000 debt he had with the Outfit. With the normal avenues of negotiations far behind Porter does what any crazed man bent on revenge would do, he kidnaps the mob boss’s son. If the boss wasn’t out to kill Porter before this certainly seals the deal. The body count goes up in leaps and bounds, enough ammunition is used to support a small war and Porter is as determined as ever to get what he sees as rightfully his.
A lot has changed in the thirty or so years between the original and this remake. One thing is violence can be a lot more explicit now and this film reflects this change. The violence in this film is just about the sole function. When the stunt men’s union heard about what would be required for this flick they must have had some party looking forward to their larger than normal paychecks. Things blow up, people get shot, and general mayhem ensures almost at a constant rate. The scene where Porter is tortured is not for the faint of heart and certainly could not have been included back in 1967. There is not much in the way of plot here, just blind revenge to fill in the gaps between the violence. With that said there is some good pacing here. There is just enough of a story given to let the audience catch their breath before the next round of bloodshed. You have to be able to suspend belief more here than usual. It would appear that this city is devoid of police or perhaps they have too much common sense to get in the middle of all the out right murders happening. It doesn’t seem that a mere $70,000 would be enough of a reason for all the killing and maiming but it seems to suffice for Porter.
There are few actors around that play ‘crazy’ like Mel Gibson. He has a way of just letting go and let all the primal force he can muster come ripping out. While is acting abilities are far better than exhibited here he still manages to connect with the audience. His partner tries to kill him, his wife wants him dead (okay he was cheating on her) and all he wants is his money and to get out of his life of crime. In lesser hands the audience would never be able to connect with Porter but Gibson has the sheer charisma to make it happen. Many actresses have taken on the part of the hooker with a heart of gold but Maria Bello does it with a nice little flair. For an actress to play a drug addicted prostitute is difficult enough, especially if her role is only ancillary to the over all flick. Bello has a certain quality that the audience has to be concerned about her character. Lucy Liu plays a darker variation of her Charlie’s Angel persona. She has the same martial arts abilities but with a much more painful twist. Her character here takes great delight in hurting others. It’s nice to see someone that truly loves her job.
Many studios have started to re-release films that where first presented in the dawn of the DVD age. Paramount has followed suit with this trend but unlike many other distributors they add some extra bang for the buck. First and foremost this is the director’s cut of the film not the re-edited Gibson version shown in theaters. The entire flow of the film is different with a much harder edge to it. The video is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. The color balance is excellent; vivid and bright. The contrast holds together in even the darkest scenes. The Dolby 5.1 audio is explosive, filling the room with every gunshot. The sub woofer gets a full workout here. For extras Paramount has stepped up to the plate. There is a commentary by director Brian Helgeland were he details the changes made in his original vision of the film. There are also featurettes concerned with the problems in location shooting in both Chicago and Los Angles. Another featurette goes through the changes present in the director’s cut. Rounding things off is a discussion with the author of the original novel, Donald E. Westlake. This is a very good film to have some friends over, open a few beers and have a pizza.