Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Payback/Payback: Straight Up (Helgeland 1999/2006)

As hard as it might be to remember, there was a period of time when Mel Gibson was not a controversial figure, but in fact was a respected actor and a movie star’s kind of movie star: he was box office gold, an actor with solid range, and an acclaimed director to boot (though I personally have problems with his directorial efforts, but let’s save that for later). This was a time when Gibson could go on The Simpsons, claim to be loved by everyone, and not have an audience laugh at the bitter irony the line now carries. This was also a time when, when you boil it right down, he was able to star in some damn good films, like the crime caper/revenge film Payback.

Of course, Payback is a film that has been caught up in a very different type of controversy, though one where Gibson is no less at the center of it. The directorial debut of acclaimed screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), Payback became the type of disaster every director, first timer or not, dreads. After finishing his initial edit, Helgeland was fired by Gibson (a producer on the film) and the studio, who were shocked by how harsh the film was. Reshoots were mounted under another director, with an entirely new ending and beginning attached to the film. The finished film proved to be a modest success in terms of both box office and critical reaction, but the controversy surrounding the production problems resulted in fans asking time and again as to when the original version of Payback would ever be released.

Luckily, in 2006 the original version of the film was finally released on home video for all to see under the title Payback: Straight Up. Usually in these cases, there is a clearly superior version of the film, or both versions are heavily flawed works with their own strengths and weaknesses. Payback however manages to buck the trend with both versions managing to be solid genre efforts without a clear victory in the better film department. While each film goes down a different road and fits a different mood, both Payback cuts are worth owning in a film collection.

Based on the novel by Richard Stark, which was used as the basis for the 1967 John Boorman film Point Blank (which might still be the best film of this group by far), both films follow the same set up: Porter (Gibson) is a small level thug who is double crossed and left for dead by fellow criminal Val (Gregg Henry) and Porter’s wife (Deborah Kara Unger) after stealing money from a Chinese gang. Returning to the city a few months later, Porter simply wants his cut of the money, and is willing to work through various lowlifes to get it. Unfortunately, the further he goes, the more criminal bureaucratic red tape there is to work through.

The differences between the two cuts are subtle until the end of each respective film, but the small changes make a tremendous difference in the tone of each work. The first important difference is the introduction to Porter: the theatrical cut, which employs voice over from Porter over the entire film, gives the viewer a clear understanding of what has happened to Porter and his goals starting with the first scene on an operating table. Knowing about Porter’s situation and experiences from the start provides a context for Porter’s actions which allows an audience to more easily digest the violence he engages in. Porter is bad, but not that bad. We actually grow to like him somewhat.

Payback: Straight Up however drops the viewer right into Porter’s arrival in the city, with no voice over to be heard anywhere over the entire film. The result is a Porter whose actions and motivations are more ambiguous, and leave the viewer on edge. The revelation about what happened to Porter is saved until after he finds his wife and a brutal physical altercation happens that is more reminiscent of domestic abuse than a man defending himself. While we are not exactly against Porter in this version, we understand him to be a far more ruthless individual, and remain more objective to the actions he takes. In fact, we are left to ask the same question that the other criminals in the film ask: is the miniscule amount of money really worth the hell Porter causes for himself and others? Is this really about the principle of the matter for Porter, or is there something else?

It is this key shift that, as a total film and experience, makes the director’s cut of Payback a superior film in that it is trying for something more than the original cut. The result of this effort is a tighter, more focused film overall. Yet the original film cannot be dismissed entirely either, for while it is somewhat shallower and certainly more mainstream, the slick, pop pulp version of the story is a ton of fun itself, allowing for a gleeful bit of fantasy where the little guy can get what is rightfully his and stick it to the upper level powers in society, laughing all the way.

Such a fantasy is oddly compelling, particularly in the ten years that have passed since the original release of Payback. With what seems like endless corporate fraud and various lower to middle classes individuals paying the price for big corporate greed, Payback taps into that desire to get back at such institutions which seem to be able to say “sorry, but we cannot give you your money back.” The moral questions of such a fantasy are vast of course, and seems entirely counter to Hegeland’s intents with the film, but the appeal is undeniable.

Moreover, the film in its two versions can be seen as both marking very different points in Mel Gibson’s public image. While Gibson would make a few more standard blockbuster films after, the original Payback is perhaps the last great film of the “classic” Gibson era. He is a likeable, hard working average man up against the vast resources of those above his station (even if he is a criminal). Payback: Straight Up, coming at the time of his notorious arrest for driving while intoxicated and making an anti-Semitic remark, seems eerily coincidental with its harsher Porter who is not easily liked or understood. It is allowing the viewer to see Porter in a different light, much as Gibson had been (and continues to be).

That might just be the shame though with regards to the release of Hegeland’s director’s cut. While we are finally able to see the film as he intended, Gibson’s shadow dominates the piece in more ways than one, feeling like a film that belongs to Gibson more than anyone else. It doesn’t matter that the supporting cast is the kind that most filmmakers would dream of, with Maria Bello, Gregg Henry, Bill Duke, John Glover, Lucy Liu, James Coburn and William Devane among others: the film is Gibson’s show, like it or not.

As it stands, I highly recommend Payback in any version, though if you had to pick just one to watch, Payback: Straight Up is the way to go. With Gibson finally returning to the public eye with the upcoming thriller The Edge of Darkness, it will be interesting to see which Gibson turns up. Are we about to witness Mel attempting to carry on business as usual? Or are we about to see Gibson radically altered by his recent mistakes? It will be interesting to find out.


  1. This is a film that I've wanted to see for a long while. I think it's out on Blu-ray, so I'll see if my video store has it on that format next time I'm in a rentin' mood. In related news, I watched Lethal Weapon 2 for the first time over the weekend, and was SHOCKED at how often Mel Gibson lets his Aussie accent show. Like almost once per LINE. It was crazy. I don't remember it being a problem in the first Lethal Weapon, or in any other Mel Gibson film, for that matter. Did you notice any Aussie accent slips in Payback?

  2. It is out on BluRay, though only in the Director's Cut. It's becoming pretty hard to find the theatrical cut anywhere, so might have to keep an eye out if you want to see it as well.

    The reason I reviewed this one is because I am using it in the paper I want to publish, which I FINALLY was able to get a start on towards a proper first draft. It will be a while still till it is done, but shaping up well.

    As for Gibson slip ups, none that I can remember. By the late 1990s, the Aussie accent Gibson once had was pretty much gone. Shame really, although his american accent is pretty natural these days.


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