Rating -

Action (US); 1999; Rated R; 110 Minutes

Mel Gibson: Porter
Gregg Henry: Val
Maria Bello: Rosie
Deborah Unger: Lynn Porter
Kris Kristofferson: Bronson
Bill Duke: Detective Hicks
David Paymer: Stegman

Produced by Bruce Davey and Stephen McEveety; Directed by Brian Helgeland; Screenwritten by Brian Helgeland and Terry Hayes; based on the novel "The Hunter" by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake)

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Written by DAVID KEYES

They say that you can tell a lot about a filmmaker by just watching one of their movies. It becomes crystal clear, eventually, that people make movies involving things that they have exceptional knowledge in. All you have to do is stare at it, observe it closely, and bingo, you've learned something about the director and writer. A movie about gangsters, for instance, would tell us that the filmmakers probably enjoy cutting lose and aren't afraid of seeing blood, guts, and severe cussing at the cinema. A movie discussing severe human disasters like the Holocaust and Titanic would tell us that the filmmaker has a big heart, and wants to use it. A movie like "Payback" tells us that the director, cinematographer, and producers are fans of Mel Gibson, film noir, gangsters, Martin Scorcese mob pictures, and extreme violence.

It's all in the inspiration or experience. There's even occasions when a filmmaker has no familiarity in a subject, yet has observed it well enough in the past to understand it and use it to their advantage. Why do I bring this awkward observation up in a review of "Payback?" Mainly because it helps simplify the process in which the movie was made. Director Brian Helgeland and producers Bruce Davey and Stephen McEveety create a lush and atmospheric film with bits and pieces taken from numerous Hollywood creations, as if they've been fans of them for as long as they've been watching movies. The film noir, for instance, is inspiration in the film's production; it is shot in pale tones of blue, takes place in the city, and contains numerous menacing impulses in the interior, while the surface is fun and exaggerating. The texture itself is pivotal in giving the film a new look on many old clichés, and is shot so well, I smell a potential Academy Award nomination for the cinematographers.

But then there's the familiar script attributes: (1) the main character is a bad guy, (2) the main character is played by someone who can handle the role well, thanks to his/her movie past, (3) the violence is extreme, (4) there's lots of witty gangster-like dialogue, (5) there's a rich supporting cast, (6) the director pays direct attention to the most intriguing details of the setup, and (7) most of the story is simplistic yet fascinating. All of these things are mixed together in "Payback" with sometimes mixed results. Half of that probably will not matter, thanks to Mel Gibson, who plays the 'bad guy' in questioning, a character called Porter.

The film's setup could have fallen flat on its face, if it weren't for casting Gibson as this guy. He's the kind of actor whose experience has allowed him to fill any kind of role successfully; his screen presence creates its own dignity in whatever the setup. Casting him, for example, in the role of a politician would be effective, because his career has seen so many different roles and so many different personalities that he'd guarantee immediate success. Besides, the average politician is no less viscous than his character in "Payback."

The film is contrived from a famous novel called "The Hunter," which in turn inspired the Lee Marvin classic, "Point Blank." The story is pretty much routine, but what gives it originality are the numerous unique characteristics of the main character. The opening of the film is a narration, of sorts, for the film to follow. Gibson's great voice says, with clarity and suspense, "Not many people know what their life's worth. Mine's worth seventy grand, and since they took it from me, I'm going to take it back."

So begins the story, in which Gibson pursues his money, but not for one penny more or less. All he wants is $70,000 dollars. Since he was partners with the man who originally stole the money and shot him in the back, you can easily tell where the story will go from there. It's violent, funny, action-packed, and surprising; but a plot summary would be pointless, since it's simply a nonstop amusing journey into the world of the 'bad guy,' and how the audience is won over by his wit and charm.

The whole concept makes one big gigantic mistake, however; it leaps across a canyon and fails to make to the other side. The movie tries its hardest to allow the audience to feel comfortable, but all the countless scenes of torture and wanton violence are uneasy and sometimes inessential. Extreme gratuitousness is necessary in some films, like the recent "8MM," but here it is miscalculated, and not very entertaining.

There's a fine line that movies like this cross, and I guess there's no way to prevent them from doing so. If you put Mel Gibson into a film where he wants justice for being cheated, expect some blood gushing and torture. For his serious fans, that's going to be enough reason to see him get revenge on his old partner, but for people who don't appreciate the high level of violent acts, they will be the ones who want to be paid back.

© 1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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