MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Mel Gibson (Porter), Gregg Henry (Val), Maria Bello (Rosie), David Paymer (Stegman), Deborah Kara Unger (Lynn), William Devane (Carter), Kris Kristofferson (Bronson), James Coburn (Fairfax)
About the only mean thing Mel Gibson doesn't do to prove his badness in "Payback" is steal candy from a baby. In the first five minutes alone, he brusquely pushes apart a loving couple holding hands, steals money from a homeless Vietnam veteran, stiffs a waitress on her tip, snatches a businessman's wallet, and proceeds to use the driver's license to take money from the man's bank account and the credit cards to buy himself a new wardrobe. When a waiter at another restaurant tells him the credit card has been rejected, Gibson asks him to try it again, and then slips out without paying.
But, that's just the beginning. By the time the movie is over, he will have beaten up a wormy drug dealer by ripping out his nose ring, cold-bloodedly executed one man in the head and another in the chest, incinerated three men in a car, incinerated another three men in a building, kidnapped a teenage boy, and (God forbid in these tobacco-deploring times) smoked enough cigarettes to kill several Marlboro Men.
Of course, Gibson's character, a professional robber who goes by the name of Porter, has good reason to be in a lousy mood. After stealing $140,000 from a group of Chinese mobsters, he was double-crossed by his partner, Val (Gregg Henry), and his own wife, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger). When the movie opens, we get to watch as a back alley surgeon pulls two bullets from Porter's back after washing the wounds with whiskey. It's a grisly scene, and it's not the last one.
The most memorable involves an interrogation sequence where Porter gets a couple of his toes smashed with a hammer, and if you watch it in a state-of-the-art theater with digital THX surround sound like I did, you will get to listen to every excruciating bone crack. What is it about torturing Mel Gibson that viewers find enthralling? After the brutal car wreck he withstood in "The Road Warrior" (1981), the shock treatment he got in "Lethal Weapon" (1987), and the live disembowellment he suffered in "Braveheart" (1995), is it too much to ask to give the poor man a break? I guess we just love to watch this man bleed.
Although "Payback" isn't always the most pleasant movie to watch, it has a smooth visual style and a few high moments of plot ingenuity and clever dialogue. Gibson's character is cool and steady in a malicious kind of way, and first-time director Brian Helgeland (best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for "L.A. Confidential") understands that Gibson's star presence allows him to get away with murder. Gibson uses his charm and understated humor to turn a vicious criminal into an attractive antihero whose fundamental attractiveness emanates not so much from himself, but from the fact that everyone around him is more morally depraved than he is.
Porter spends the majority of the film trying to get back his half of the money from the robbery Val double-crossed him on. Val used almost all the money to pay back a debt to "The Syndicate," also known as "The Outfit," a large, powerful crime organization in Chicago. The Outfit is represented by a multitude of goons in expensive suits, all under the command of the three men: Carter (William Devane), Fairfax (James Coburn), and Bronson (Kris Kristofferson). And, when Porter isn't dealing with them, he's fighting against a couple of crooked cops who are trying to scam him out of his money, as well as the Chinese mobsters who figured out that he was responsible for the initial robbery, and are back with a vengeance.
In this way, the movie miraculously manages to set Porter up as the underdog, as he is one man against an entire army. Now, who isn't going to root against the doggedly determined individual against the insidious organization? There's nothing more American than one strong dude going head-to-head with a towering bureaucracy, even if that one strong dude isn't someone you would want to see in your own living room.
Of course, Porter isn't completely alone. He's aided by the Hollywood standard hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, this time played by Maria Bello as a soft-hearted blond named Rosie. Apparently, Porter used to drive Rosie to work and protect her, and they had one night together. Rosie is the kind of woman who can see through Porter's hard exterior, although the movie never really suggests that his interior is any softer.
All in all, "Payback" is an entertaining yarn whose violence and rough tone are lightened at times by Gibson's playfully noirish voice-over narration and a few douses of black humor. David Paymer has an amusing role as a wimpy small-time hood named Stegman, but the movie can't hold back from dispatching him with a hail of bullets. As a matter of fact, it is only Rosie who comes out of this film mostly unscathed, although she takes a pretty fierce beating from Val at one point. Even her dog gets shot; but, as we all know, Hollywood can never kill the dog. That might alienate the audience and make them upset. Only humans are allowed to pile up as corpses. And, for those who don't wind up a corpse, a good beating and a few smashed toes will usually do the trick.
©1999 James Kendrick