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Movies

Mel Gibson plays the bad guy in "Payback"

Gibson and company craft a comedy of 'Payback'

Web posted on:
Thursday, February 04, 1999 4:38:33 PM EST

From Turner Entertainment Report Senior Correspondent Andy Culpepper

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Paramount Studio's ad campaign for the new movie "Payback" delivers a not-so-subtle giveaway: "Get ready to root for the bad guy," the posters and billboards proclaim. The marketing folks who engineered this campaign didn't need to search far for inspiration. Gibson's character -- the single-monikered Porter -- is no goody-two-shoes. Not by a long shot.

But Gibson is no novice when it comes to playing it weird, nasty, or just plain bad. Consider his characters from "Lethal Weapon," "Conspiracy Theory," and -- for good measure -- his "road warrior" from the "Mad Max" series. For his part, Gibson thinks "Porter" may do them all one better.

Gibson

"Yeah, he's a little hard," says the star, "a little bit like the road warrior, I think, except he's a little more hard even, a little more unpredictable."

Unpredictable? Take a look at the relationships among the movie's cast of characters. Gibson's Porter is a thief quite capable of killing in cold blood. His wife is a junkie who betrays him for a two-bit hoodlum with a sadomasochistic fetish serviced by an Asian kitten-with-a-whip. Porter's ex-girlfriend, confidante, and refuge from this madness is a high-priced call girl with a very big dog she named after him.

Then there's the motivation driving that guy Porter. He's been double-crossed, filched of a goodly sum of money, and he'll stop at nothing -- including shooting a man in the head at point blank range -- to exact his revenge. Says Gibson, "This guy has a sense of integrity, but it's very misguided."

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So why would the studio invite audiences to root for the bad guy?

The picture is predictably violent, bloody, and contains suggestive sexual situations -- all of which lead to a surprising payoff for "Payback": the filmmakers, cast and crew have fashioned themselves a product which looks suspiciously like a black comedy.

Huh?

"You know, we knew that from the first day we started shooting," says actress Maria Bello, who plays the hooker with a heart of gold. A former member of television's "ER" cast, Bello offers her own take on the movie's genre, calling it "a bad-ass roller coaster action comedy."

Gregg Henry

Actor Gregg Henry ("Star Trek: Insurrection") plays the hoodlum Val, whose idea of a good time can involve a well-placed spike heel in places that would make the most hardened among us flinch. His character, says Henry, "has quite a few snakes in the attic."

Henry agrees with Bello that this movie was played for laughs.

"Not everybody saw it as funny when they first read it. I did. I think Brian meant it that."

"Brian" would be director and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for the stylish film noir piece "L.A. Confidential." Helgeland also wrote "Payback," which serves as his directorial debut.

Whether directing "Payback" was something to laugh about for Helgeland is open to debate.

Maria Bello

It's been widely reported Gibson was not happy with the initial cut of the movie. The star was said to be concerned that his character was not heroic enough, and that the movie was too dark. Gibson reportedly wanted some scenes reworked and reshot. As goes the story, Helgeland balked, so the changes were made without him.

Was Gibson concerned his character would be seen by audiences as too much the bad guy? "No, no, not at all," professes the actor. "I think that my job is like -- no matter how bad the guy is -- to have him be understandable. If he's at least understandable, people will stick with him to see how it turns out. That's all."

Helgeland's name remains on the final credits as both the director and the screenwriter. He was roundly praised by his stars for his attention to the humor and for his efficiency. What he thought of the final product at the time of the studio's publicity screenings was something he didn't share with television reporters covering the film's opening: For whatever reason, he didn't join Gibson and the others for the Los Angeles media weekend.

No matter. The posters invite moviegoers to root for the bad guy, and the cast invites them to enjoy the comedy. In the midst of all the laughs, though -- and inescapably so -- that healthy serving of over-the-top violence remains. The scene in which a sledge hammer comes in contact with Porter's digits may strike some as sufficient reason for its R rating.

Still, the star vows he's confident we'll all get the humor in the midst of the mayhem. These are not people to be taken seriously, says Gibson. "If you did take them seriously, there would be something wrong with you."

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