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Review: Is 'Payback' worth paying for?

Web posted on:
Friday, February 05, 1999 2:19:52 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- Oh ye of tender stomachs, beware. Excessively violent and blood-drenched, though heavily laced with humor, "Payback" makes it clear before the end of the opening credits that the movie's star, Mel Gibson, is a bad guy -- a very bad guy.

This film is riddled with cliches and impossible situations. And as usual with this type of movie, the plot moves forward like an out-of-control freight train, while Gibson is beaten to a pulp time and again. Of course, he keeps on ticking and keeps on cracking wise. In other words -- Gibson fans rejoice -- he's back.

Watch the theatrical preview for "Payback"
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Paul Clinton reviews "Payback"
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"Payback" is actually loosely based on John Boorman's 1967 classic film "Point Blank" starring Lee Marvin, which in turn was based on Donald Westlake's (he used the pseudonym Richard Stark) novel "The Hunter."

Role tailor-made for Gibson

In this version Gibson plays Porter, just Porter -- they make a point of the fact that his surname is all that will ever be available for public consumption -- and even though it's clear he's no Boy Scout, you soon find he's a bad guy with a soft spot for animals and "working girls."

The narrative, such as it is, is mainly provided by Gibson's voice-overs throughout the film, and gives the piece a slightly noir feeling. This is reinforced by the fact that Porter is a Dashiell Hammett-type character mixed with a dash of James Ellroy.

This worldweary "been there, done that" guy was tailor-made for Gibson by director/writer Brian Helgeland and co-writer Terry Hayes. Both know the type well. Helgeland co-wrote the screenplay (along with director Curtis Hanson) for "L.A. Confidential," which was dripping in cynicism. And Australian Hayes has a long-term association with Gibson, his fellow buddy from Down Under, since he collaborated with director George Miller on both "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" and "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," both starring Gibson.

Porter bad, but opponents are worse

After robbing a bunch of Asian hoods, Porter is double-crossed by his partner Val, played by Gregg Henry, and his wife, played by Deborah Kara Unger, then robbed, shot and left for dead. For the rest of the film, we follow Porter as he creatively kills and maims his way through a Chicago crime syndicate while trying to get his money back. The "Outfit," as the gang is called in the film, is greatly enhanced by the presence of Kris Kristofferson, William Devane and James Colburn.

Porter may be a cold-blooded killer, but the other guys are even worse, so there's no one to root for except our blue-eyed star. To borrow a line from Jessica Rabbit in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "He's not bad, he's just drawn that way."

"Payback" is a decidedly adult film featuring: a drug overdose; a sadomasochistic hooker, played perfectly by "Ally McBeal"'s Lucy Liu; another standard hooker with the standard "heart of gold" played by Maria Bello, best known for her role on TV's "ER;" and Henry as the aforementioned Val, the slimeball who crosses our tainted hero. David Paymer also appears, as a weasel you'll love to hate.

Gibson's character may be a crook, but he has his own rules of behavior, and when crossed, there's no looking back. For the most part the plot is fairly predictable, but there are some surprises here and there. The acting is generally very good, and nobody does Gibson better then Gibson. "Payback" isn't going to get any Academy Awards, but it's worth seeing only if you like your action bloody, fast and furious. And you know who you are.

"Payback" is rated R for strong violence, language, and drug and sexual content -- personally, though, there's enough adult material in this film that I think it should be NC-17. Running time 102 minutes.

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