"Payback," Brian Helgeland's inauspicious directing debut
(coincidentally, he previously penned the award-winning screenplay for
1997's "L.A. Confidential"), is a wildly uneven and thoroughly
unpleasant revenge thriller that takes one idea---a movie with non-stop
violence, death, and villains---and runs with it, or should I say,
barely manages to crawl away with it.
Mel Gibson, in yet another disappointing picture ("Conspiracy Theory"
and "Lethal Weapon 4," anyone?), stars as the reprehensible
villain/hero, Porter, a man who becomes determined to get his 50% share
of $140,000, which he stole in a robbery, back when his partner-in-crime
(Gregg Henry) and drug-addicted wife (Deborah Kara Unger) double-cross
him, shoot him, and leave him for dead. Porter is not dead,
however---not by a long shot---as he quickly rehabilitates and, along
with his loyal prositute girlfriend, Rosie (Maria Bello), sets out to
make everyone involved in the scam pay.
The tagline for "Payback" is, "get ready to root for the bad guy," and
sure enough, this is true, as pretty much every significant character
who appears is crooked in some way. I wouldn't have a problem with this
offbeat detail if the painfully thin story had been of any interest, but
it wasn't, and therefore, I found myself having an especially laborious
time investing myself into a wide array of character that have
absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. No attempt is made to
flesh the roles into three-dimensional characters, and there are no
vacant signs that anyone has any sort of humanity in them. Just because
the protagonist, a "bad guy," is played by Mel Gibson doesn't mean I
will "root for him," and I didn't. Quite the contrary, every person in
the movie deserved to die a gory death (although some of them did,
anyway, just to spice up the dull proceedings).
Since none of the respectable actors in "Payback" actually have human
beings to play, only one performance managed to stand out. Lucy Alexis
Liu (of T.V.'s "Ally McBeal"), who plays a spicy S&M dominatrix,
brightens up every scene she is in, and has a definite flair for comedy,
something I would have liked to have seen more of, since most of the
humor fell with a resounding splat. Meanwhile, Gibson, who is perfectly
fine here, sleepwalks through a role that is not the least bit
challenging. Unger, who made an impression in 1997's "The Game," is
surprisingly wasted and it is difficult to see why she took such a part
since she disappears ten minutes in, and only has two purproses: (1) to
get high on heroin, and (2) because she plays a key part in an early
flashback. Finally, Kris Kristofferson appears in a throwaway role
during the climax, and this unnecessary plot development sticks out like
a sore thumb (tellingly, he didn't appear in the original cut of the
film, but was cast when extensive reshoots took place months later).
Like most action movies, the star often takes a licking but keeps on
ticking. In the course of the 102-minute running time of "Payback,"
Porter is shot three times in the back, hit by a van, beaten up, and has
his feet smashed with a sledgehammer. And guess what? Not only does he
survive the whole ordeal, but he is happy-go-lucky in the penultimate
sequence (and can still walk!), even though he looks like he had
recently substituted for a punching bag.
"Payback" is not, in any way, an entertaining film, even though I am
sure the makers hoped it would be with all the graphic carnage that goes
on, but take away that violence and what you are basically left with is
a blank screen. Perhaps director Helgeland would have been smart to
consider this, so he could have at least added a few worthwhile
elements, like a fresh storyline and characters whom you could even
remotely stand to be around for a few hours.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman