Porter (no first name), the anti-hero of Payback, is the least detestable fish in a sea of sharks. Which doesn’t make him a great guy: he’s cold, borderline sadistic, and generally a callous bastard. If Porter were at the center of a clever little art-house thriller, perhaps played by Kevin Spacey or Steve Buscemi, nobody would bat an eye. But Payback is a Hollywood movie starring Mel Gibson, whose heroes of late have usually been noble or likably goofy; Porter is neither. It’s a return to basics for Gibson, who came to international prominence as the grim-faced Mad Max, and it’s also a risk that perhaps only as big a star as Gibson could have taken.
The risk works. Payback is a gray and ornery comedy of bad manners, in which our only clue that Porter is the hero is that Gibson’s playing him. The plot, based on an early novel by “Richard Stark” (i.e., Donald Westlake — 1967’s Point Blank was also derived from it), is another return to basics. Porter has been shot in the back and robbed of his $70,000 share of stolen money; now he wants it back. He won’t accept less than $70,000; he doesn’t want more than $70,000. Why so fussy? Because someone was willing to kill him to steal it from him; that magic number represents what Porter’s betrayer figured his life was worth.
This stuff has been done before — it was done many times before and after Point Blank — but sometimes style and attitude make all the difference. Rookie director Brian Helgeland (who won an Oscar for co-writing L.A. Confidential) and cinematographer Ericson Core drain Porter’s world of almost all color; everything, including flesh, looks blue-gray and cold to the touch. Payback also unfolds in a universe where time literally seems to have no meaning: Sometimes the attitudes are very ’90s, sometimes very ’80s, sometimes even ’60s, and people are always seen using rotary phones (even in a car!). Helgeland, who also wrote the script (Gibson later brought in Mad Max‘s Terry Hayes to rework the ending), seems to have shaped the movie as a tribute to bad-ass cinema from all decades and also all countries — this movie, like Ronin, feels more European than American.
Gibson hardly even cracks a smile here, yet there’s humor in his consistent irritability and no-bullshit ‘tude (as in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome); if the movie flops, the entertainment pundits will chide Gibson for departing from his loopy Lethal Weapon persona — as if the hero of that series hadn’t started out as a suicidal, alcoholic wreck before gradually getting cutesified. I do wonder, though, why Gibson seems to have a torture scene written into every script; didn’t Braveheart satisfy his masochistic streak?
Aside from Gibson, Payback is a wonderfully wretched hive of scum and villainy. William Devane, as a bigwig in “the outfit” (mob), plays his role as a soft-spoken, reasonable CEO; Kris Kristofferson, as an even bigger bigwig, plays his as a pulp-fiction variation on his cruel sheriff in Lone Star; James Coburn pops into the movie as yet another bigwig with a taste for fine suits that exceeds his taste for violence; John Glover, though given far too little to do, brings a bit of zip into his few scenes just by standing there smirking over the brutality to come; David Paymer is funny as usual, as a rabbity smack dealer.
And it’s always great to see Gregg Henry, a veteran of several Brian De Palma films (notably Body Double); having accepted that his sourball features prevent him from playing anything but sleazoids, he’s perfected it. His character, who gets off on being beaten by a dominatrix and cringes before Devane’s calmly discouraging assessment of his status in the outfit, is the freshest creation in the movie. Maybe in an art-house version of Payback, Gregg Henry would play Porter; as it is, he’s the movie’s wild card, and Helgeland or Gibson (whoever was smart enough to hire him) may have jump-started a deserving career.