Archive for the ‘film noir’ category

The Assignment

March 19, 2017

assignmentWatching Another 48 HRS on TV recently with the sound off, for some reason, I found myself drawn into the movement, the colors, the cinema. That movie is a lazy, stupid sequel, certainly not the finest hour of its director, Walter Hill. But Hill is a visual samurai, and for a few minutes I just let myself coast on the smooth, feral images. Hill’s latest, the controversial pulp thriller The Assignment, has a few moments like that. Too few. An alarming chunk of it amounts to two people in a room swapping stiff dialogue. Given the advance anti-buzz — the very premise an affront to the struggle of transgender people — I was anticipating a good crappy time, a low-rent guilty pleasure, but the sad truth is it’s too dull to be offensive.

Hill is only as good as his script, and this one, which he and collaborator Denis Hamill tinkered with for years, doesn’t do him any favors. A hitman, Frank Kitchen, a lithe and scowling fellow with a beard, kills a lowlife who turns out to be the brother of an insane plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver). The surgeon has her revenge by having Frank abducted and brought to her operating table; before long, Frank looks like Michelle Rodriguez, with the accompanying lady parts, and of course without his former man parts. I say “his” because Frank is not transgender; he had gender reassignment surgery without his consent, so the use of trans-friendly pronouns doesn’t quite apply here.

What we have here isn’t truly transphobic. It’s really more of a gendernaut rewrite of Hill’s 1989 Johnny Handsome. In both films, the assumption is that surgery to change a scoundrel’s appearance will also change his heart; Weaver’s cracked surgeon sounds almost the same as Forest Whitaker’s much more altruistic sawbones in Johnny Handsome. In this case, it’s presumed that changing macho, cold-hearted Frank into a woman outwardly will also make him inwardly more feminine, less violent. Of course, the surgeon is also a woman, and she’s fairly cold and has no trouble getting thugs to do her psychotic bidding. Unpacking this movie for what it might say about gender will only result in clutter. It’s basically noir: people don’t change; people can’t change.

Towards the end, as Frank slaughters his way closer to the surgeon, Hill’s casual mastery of violence kicks The Assignment into gear. It’s cheaply done, and it’s depressingly clear that Hill’s days of having budgets like the ones he had for 48 HRS or Southern Comfort are long behind him. But there’s some snappy brutality. It doesn’t make up for the talkiness, though, or Hill’s habit of using corny scene transitions, or the highly expendable subplot involving Frank and a comely but unethical nurse (Caitlin Gerard). Hill was enamored of the film’s premise for decades, but he never made the premise into a movie. Weaver, sitting in a straitjacket, talks to shrink Tony Shalhoub for what seems like a lifetime, and talks and talks, and every time Hill goes back to this room and these two, we tap our feet and wait for the film to get started again.

Weaver tries for some Dr. Lecter sangfroid in bringing this arrogantly arch character to life, but it’s a monotonous, unsmiling performance from a usually good-humored actor. Rodriguez looks for something real in this pulp universe and fails, falling back into her sullen default mode. Walter Hill turned this material into a French graphic novel before he made the movie, and the movie has the same gritty, debauched tone as a European comics album for adults only. The acting needed to be heightened, the dialogue cruel and sharp as a shiv. There aren’t even quotable lines or amusing turns of phrase. The transgender community has far worse things to fear and rage against than this pallid exercise. Walter Hill alone may know why he still wanted to make this movie; the rest of us won’t know from watching it.

The Maltese Falcon

September 26, 2016

the-maltese-falconHumphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is a likable bastard, someone you might come to with your troubles but not with your power of attorney. Sam is a private detective in San Francisco on the cusp of wartime (the movie was released about two months before Pearl Harbor), dealing with shady characters of vague and various nationalities. The Maltese Falcon is less about Dashiell Hammett’s plot than about the interplay of cynical villains and anti-heroes, and first-time director John Huston (who also wrote the script) was savvy enough to know that. The Maltese Falcon itself is, as Sam might say, hooey; it’s what Hitchcock liked to call the MacGuffin, the thing nobody has that everyone wants.

This is a great and unmistakably American entertainment, and might lay claim to being the best directorial debut of 1941 if not for a modest little film called Citizen Kane. As it is, The Maltese Falcon more or less inaugurated film noir as it came to be known in Hollywood, even though Huston doesn’t do all that much show-offy with the lighting or compositions — his effects are subtle, a sturdy cage enclosing a menagerie of creatures. Aside from a couple of scenes dealing with the murder of Sam’s partner Archer, the movie stays confined to offices and hotel rooms — it’s claustrophobic, with the boxy Academy format hemming everyone in further. At times we seem to be viewing the world through a keyhole — the movie turns us into detectives.

A woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) drifts into Sam’s office, speaking of a dangerous man threatening her sister; there is no sister, and no Ruth Wonderly either — her real name, or at least the one she settles on, is Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Sam pegs Brigid as trouble from the start, yet still develops feelings for her, and is self-aware enough to be bitterly amused by them. There’s a reason Sam didn’t quite turn into a running character for Hammett (he appeared in three other short stories) — he’s less a serial hero than a flawed portrait of wised-up urban manhood, complete with the prejudices of the day. He enjoys slapping around Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre in his iconic American role), whose homosexuality was more explicit in the 1930 book, and he enjoys needling the touchy thug Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) by referring to him as a “gunsel,” which pointedly did not mean what the squares of 1930 or 1941 (or 2016, possibly) thought it meant.

Cairo and Wilmer work for “fat man” Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who yearns to possess the titular bird statue, or “the dingus” as Sam dismissively calls it. By this point in the narrative it hardly matters what the Falcon is or what it’s worth. All these vipers want it, and Sam says he can get it, but he’s just weaving his own web of deceit. The Maltese Falcon is a comedy-tragedy about liars (the only straight shooter in the movie is Sam’s secretary Effie, played as a wry sunbeam of morality by Lee Patrick); the comedy derives from the sharp back-and-forth in the dialogue, as the liars assess each other and figure out who knows what and what can be gained, and the tragedy is bundled in at the end, when, as Danny Peary pointed out in the first book of his Cult Movies trilogy, one character goes quickly to Hell, while Sam proceeds more slowly but will get there sooner or later.

Seventy-five years old on October 3 (when it comes to the Brattle in Cambridge for a four-day 35mm screening), The Maltese Falcon feels evergreen, not so much in style or attitude but in mood. It was the first of five films Huston made with Bogart, though I’m not prepared to say it’s the best — The African Queen and especially Treasure of the Sierra Madre pose hefty competition. It is, though, the movie from which a lot of blessings flow; its influence may feel fainter in this era of romcoms and caped crusaders, but look for it and it’s there. Its calloused urbanity comes from Hammett, its cheerful cynicism from Huston, its peculiar human gravity from Bogart, that odd, tooth-baring presence who excelled at men with dark corners, who was seldom less than compelling. Huston sets about surrounding this man of gravitas with a circle of moral gremlins, all of whom try their best to steal the picture (Lorre comes closest) while Bogart heavily stands his ground and fends them off not with a gat but with a gibe and a sneer.

Blue Velvet

April 17, 2016

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David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet, which is getting a limited 30th-anniversary re-release in theaters this year, has lost very little of its juice or shock in three decades. Since it wears the sheep’s clothing of fifties retro, other than the Aqua-Netted hair on some briefly seen high-school girls, not much ties the film to the mid-‘80s, either. It’s just this angelic/satanic hybrid reality, full of dichotomies and abstracted imagery and behavior. Like Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the film has a mystery at its center, but Lynch just uses it as an excuse to swim around inside his own obsessions, which become — and this is his artistry — our obsessions, at least for two hours.

The mystery here activates when college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), walking home through a field, finds a severed human ear. At one point, Lynch’s camera travels into the earhole, and the rest of the movie could be said to be a walkabout inside Lynch’s head. The ear leads to a drug ring, a kidnapped father and child, and the ultimate sadist and masochist — Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who seems to be made out of profanity, and Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who seems to be his not-quite-unwilling sex slave. I really have zero interest in summing up the plot, though, because if there’s one movie that is resolutely not about its plot, Blue Velvet is that movie.

Soaked in Freud and Jungian dream logic, the film proposes a split between darkness and light in which both sides are absurdly, almost cartoonishly heightened. It’s either picket fences or industrial rust, colors that pop in the sunshine or shadows that hide secrets and kinks. Even the dialogue echoes with oppositions: “I don’t know whether you’re a detective or a pervert”; “I don’t want to hurt you, I want to help you.” (With both these examples, the movie proves that there’s no reason both can’t be true.) Frank, enacting his ritualistic tryst with Dorothy (in which conventional coitus, including penetration, seems off the table), flips between being “Daddy” and “Baby” — infantilized by his own thirst for macho domination. Hopper is certainly ferocious as this rough beast, but then he goes beyond that into a weird sensitivity. Face to face with Jeffrey, his opposite number, Frank taunts him by whispering “You’re like me” and then plants some lipsticky kisses on him. The movie is, in part, about how Jeffrey recognizes this kinship to Frank but then rejects it. The question is whether such kinship, once recognized, can be rejected.

Frank’s violently sexual/sexless relationship with Dorothy and his tweaking of Jeffrey seem to proceed from the same impulse that brings him to Ben (Dean Stockwell), a “suave” and fey criminal of some sort. Frank takes Jeffrey, Dorothy, and his amusingly bedraggled posse of ne’er-do-wells to Ben’s for a brief business meeting, and also so that Dorothy can see her little boy, who apparently rejects her. (Is it because he can sense that Jeffrey has “put his disease” in her?) Ben’s pad is full of matronly women with cat’s-eye glasses and bouffants; whatever else it is, it’s the least likely place of criminal business anyone has ever seen. Frank, who abuses and yells at everyone, seems to respect the effeminate Ben, and stands mesmerized and agonized as Ben lip-syncs Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” Frank seems to need this song as much as he needs whatever he huffs from his gas mask. He’s a bastard and a maniac but also infernally human.

Lynch and his invaluable sound designer Alan Splet turn Blue Velvet into an apocalyptic, chthonic noise-scape, wedded to Angelo Badalamenti’s lush, minacious score, whose main melody seems an extension of Bernard Herrmann’s looping music for Vertigo. The movie is perhaps the most conventionally plotted of Lynch’s weirder work — it has clues, narrative beats, a resolution — and that might be why it ranks as many people’s favorite Lynch film, but I think its undeniable technical sophistication also helps put it over for those who would have little patience for Lynch’s later puzzles (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive). It walks and talks like a classically structured movie, and yet it doesn’t; it’s decayed and curled at the edges in so many ways. The movie’s eroticism — the dangerously intimate bits between Jeffrey and Dorothy that pass over into rage and release — is probably still unsurpassed, except perhaps by Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. Rossellini possibly isn’t quite acting; she gives physically of herself totally, and her spiky emotions derive from her literal nakedness.

One of Blue Velvet’s last images, famously, is of a (fake-looking) robin with an insect in its beak, calling back to the vision of Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the local detective’s daughter and Jeffrey’s sometime helper on this “case,” of the arrival of robins to dispel the darkness. The equally famous opening of the movie, with its hyper-bright flowers and fire truck giving way to Jeffrey’s dad’s stroke (I always think the kinked-up garden hose somehow causes the stroke — does anyone else?) and the subterranean black bugs, seems to be the entire movie in miniature, all its themes laid out in pictures — even the TV playing in Jeffrey’s house foreshadows things to come.

The fake robin may or may not triumph over or devour the insect it’s carrying. Entire books could be (and probably have been) devoted to that one bothersome image. But the very final image is of Dorothy, still wearing her fetishistic performer’s wig, in what you’d think is a moment of reunion and rapture, except that something seems to remind her of her bombed-out rendition of the movie’s theme song, and for a moment her expression becomes troubled. Even if the insect is vanquished by the robin, there are many more like it hiding in the grass, in the shadows under the white picket fence. I think Lynch sincerely wants to believe in Sandy and her vision, but Blue Velvet’s position during the “morning in America” Reagan era is neither an accident nor a coincidence; Lynch wants us to look under the shiny surface, as he did at greater length in Twin Peaks. Days are not always sunny, but nights are always dark.

The Third Man

July 26, 2015

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The popular line on The Third Man is that it’s a thriller, or even a film noir, but it reads to me as a tragedy about disillusionment — personal and global. The movie is set in post-war Vienna, and the great city’s old-world beauty is crosshatched with scars. One American pursues another: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has landed in Vienna to take a job offered by his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find that Harry has been fatally hit by a car. Apparently it was an accident — or was it? The story keeps changing: two men supposedly carried Harry’s body to the side of the street, but later an unidentified third man is said to have helped move the corpse.

Thus the title, I suppose, and yet it also seems to refer to the overlap that happens when two very different men meet. Holly is a naïve American, the author of many pulp westerns; his outlook on the world has a similar simplistic coloration. Harry is more worldly, an avatar of the moral murk America muddled into during and after the war. Holly would have been shocked by the revelation of bodies strewn like broken toys at Auschwitz; Harry would not. After the movie, Harry was resurrected for 52 radio episodes and 77 television episodes; Holly, poor sap, was not, ultimately being as desolately ignored as he is at the end of the film, when his unrequited love interest (Alida Valli) pointedly disses him in a final shot famous for its bitter understanding of life in Harry Lime’s world.

Welles’s Lime is given an equally famous intro (a little more than an hour into the film’s running time) — first only the feet, then his smug moon face briefly illuminated in the shadows of the city. Harry is the villain of the piece, but Welles, like so many others playing villains, acts as if the movie were really about him exclusively, with him as the misunderstood hero. Welles was a still-ridiculously young 34 when he played Harry, but he was probably born sounding 56, and his voice caresses Harry’s monologues. Oh, how pleased he is with himself — Harry, I mean, not Welles, I guess — when he uncorks his legendary “cuckoo clock” speech, prefaced by remarks about the meaningless shapes moving around down there. This sort of thing sounded self-serving and callow when Joseph Cotten spewed it six years earlier in Shadow of a Doubt, and it sounds the same now. Harry has made money by consigning children to death with diluted penicillin; his villainy is not savory and amusing but sordid and appalling, however he tries to justify it by nihilistic rhetoric.

The movie’s ugliness — wreaked on architecture by the war and on humanity by greed, as if nothing were learned from the war and people were just going to go on doing the same old stupid exploitative things forever — is leavened by aesthetic loveliness. Director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker shoot almost every scene off-kilter, except for a few establishing shots, but as soon as people start talking the camera tilts. Anton Karas’ celebrated zither score finds an unstable balance between sprightly and melancholy. All the elements are in place for a standard classic, but the decay is never far from the lovely surface. In that respect, The Third Man is as perverse as any David Lynch film, and probably more knowing on a political level than most of Hitchcock.

And so we return to Holly and Harry, the soundalikes, two sides of the same rusted coin. Holly, maybe, was driven to the simplicities of pulp by the incomprehensibility of the war. Harry, driven the other way, styles himself an elegant, suave villain, but he’s really a squalid little opportunist (Welles as seen in The Third Man is “the most hideous man alive” used by the girls in Heavenly Creatures as their imaginary kingdom’s hideously sexy villain), and he closes things out in an appropriate place. In the end, though, who truly wins? Harry has at least been saved from the indignities of prison, and chose his old friend as the one to send him off, whereas Holly, profoundly disillusioned, stands on the side of a road at the end, like the two men who allegedly bore Harry’s corpse to the side of another road, or like the third man.

The Spirit

December 25, 2008

I guess I’m going to have to be that guy — the one who genuinely enjoyed Frank Miller’s uber-stylized adaptation of Will Eisner’s comic The Spirit. My brothers and sisters in the critical community, I salute you, but I must part ways with you here.

First and foremost, The Spirit is Frank Miller having a grand old time. I appreciate that. And I’ve gone back and forth on Miller in recent years — I was a fan of his comic-book art and writing way back in the Daredevil days. But in the last few years — starting with The Dark Knight Strikes Back, his controversial, freewheeling sequel to his seminal Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — Miller’s name has become mud among comics fans. They feel betrayed. They mock his increasingly loose artwork, his alleged obsession with prostitutes, his instant-parody dialogue (“I’m the goddamn Batman” from Miller’s recent All-Star Batman and Robin quickly became an internet meme among Batfans).

What they don’t understand, I think, is that Miller has come to a place where he does what he wants. What you see on the page — and, in The Spirit, on the screen — is exactly what he wanted to put there. And what he wants to do these days is to have fun. He became, with The Dark Knight Returns, the American king of grim ‘n’ gritty superhero comics (Alan Moore crowned himself the British king of same with Watchmen). He didn’t necessarily want all superhero comics to follow his lead. But they did. So what was Miller going to do to stay fresh, to march to his own beat? Well, the exact opposite of grim ‘n’ gritty. Thus his two much-derided Batman projects, which I now read as Miller’s attempt to inject some good old-fashioned escapist jollies into the clenched, self-serious superhero subgenre. “These are people who dress up and fight crime,” Miller seemed to say. “We’re taking it deadly seriously why?”

Will Eisner’s Spirit was never particularly serious, either. Eisner’s best work can probably be found in his later graphic novels (like the revered A Contract with God), but The Spirit was where he goofed around and, almost by accident, revolutionized comics storytelling by throwing bolts of cinematic electricity. The Spirit, a pulpy adventure series pitting noble masked hero Denny Colt against nefarious villains and gorgeous dames, was Eisner’s toy box, his space to try things out. Put Eisner and Miller together (the two were friends before Eisner died in 2005) and you get a massive, fetishistic buffet full of whatever Miller loved about Eisner’s work, with side dishes full of Miller’s own preoccupations. For instance, Miller clearly thinks Nazi uniforms look cool. Nazi regalia have popped up in his comics from time to time. So, here, in one scene, with no explanation, the villainous Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and his disdainful assistant Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) rock SS garb. In another scene, the Octopus has a samurai thing going on.

The plot is essentially the Spirit (Gabriel Macht, this generation’s Sam J. Jones — who, besides being Flash Gordon, also played the Spirit in a forgotten TV movie) and the Octopus going at each other. For variety, there’s the Spirit’s childhood sweetie Sand Serif, who has become, in the curvaceous person of Eva Mendes, a swank jewel thief. The Spirit’s major weakness is women. Miller, I think, can relate. He photographs them adoringly — Johansson, Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Paz Vega, Jaime King, the adorably enthusiastic Stana Katic, and so on. The Spirit is awash in stoic heterosexual chivalry — this hero would almost be content just to look at women, to catch their scent, to know they occupy the same sidewalk he does.

The look of the film (aided by master cinematographer Bill Pope) caught some flack because critics who saw the similarly hued Sin City enjoyed hypothesizing that Miller (who was given a co-director credit on that Robert Rodriguez adaptation of his comics) could only make movies in monochrome, with ostentatious pops of color. If so, who cares? Who else makes movies that look like this, and look so beautiful? The Spirit also seems to unfold in some strange time warp, where the costumes and attitudes are strict 1940s but there are also cell phones and camcorders. “What year is it?” a doctor asks the Spirit. “This year,” answers the hero, who, like Miller, won’t be tied down to any one era.

I guess a movie this brassy, sumptuous, and unafraid of what-the-hell effects, gags and visuals isn’t enough for a lot of people. I don’t really know why. Miller packs every silvery, snow-flecked frame with toys for the eyes; he loves good girls and goes absolutely sappy over bad girls; he even throws in his own storyboard art over the end credits. He puts more of himself into this movie than 90% of the competition ever do into their movies. For this he’s run out of town on a rail and tossed into movie jail? Why do so many people hate fun?

The Man Who Wasn’t There

October 31, 2001

After a couple of frisky larks — the stoner rhapsody The Big Lebowski and the yodelling fable O Brother, Where Art Thou? — Joel and Ethan Coen are back cruising the streets of film noir mood and menace in The Man Who Wasn’t There. This will likely be the only Coen film ever to share its title with a 3-D sex comedy, and I have no doubt that the Coens, whose roots are in ’80s grindhouse (Joel helped edit Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead), knew about the 1983 film with Steve Guttenberg as an invisible man visiting, among other places, a girls’ shower room. So the title is prankish and deliberately pulpy; the film’s style itself is austere and crisp (Roger Deakins did the black-and-white photography), but the Coens are still jokers at heart, and the movie is a joke of the driest, most deadpan kind.

The deadpan starts with Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, a barber who seems spiritually immobilized, and you quickly understand why the Coens cast Thornton — he has the fatalistic slouch of a Bogart or a Mitchum, and for the first time here he has a more promising camera face than his wife’s.¹ Ed’s thoroughgoing quietude in any situation is good for uneasy laughs, and we also hear his narration, which does not sound as if he’s telling this story at poolside in the Bahamas. Thornton looks and speaks uncannily like a B-movie actor circa 1949 (when the film is set), except it’s an A-movie performance — Thornton does wonders within the tabula rasa of words and gestures he’s limited to.

Ed wants to be more than a barber, but doesn’t know how; he has resigned himself to what he has come to see as an unexciting life, with an unexciting wife, Doris (Coen staple Frances McDormand, who enjoys one of the funnier drunken scenes on film). When an oily hustler (Jon Polito, who can always be counted on to add some oil to a Coen film) offers to bring Ed in on a get-rich-quick scheme involving dry cleaning — if Ed will just kick in $10,000 — Ed accepts, then goes about figuring out how to get the money. As luck would have it, Doris is cheating on him with Big Dave (James Gandolfini, filling John Goodman’s usual role), her boss; Ed decides to blackmail Big Dave. Of course, it’s far from that simple.

As I’ve said before, noir is not about plot twists so much as a general doomed-from-birth attitude solidified by the plot twists, which act as one door after another slamming shut behind our hero until he’s trapped by his own animal desperation. The Man Who Wasn’t There is awfully short on animal desperation, or animal anything, which is part of the Coens’ sly up-ending of the genre. Ed has no inner life, no passion; the closest he comes to the latter is his fondness for a young girl (Scarlett Johansson) who plays piano — he takes an interest in her talent and thinks there’s a career in it for her. But even then he’s such a lukewarm cod that when the girl calls him an “enthusiast,” the very idea of him being enthused gets one of the script’s weirdest laughs.

In true Coen form, the following things happen: blood flows ostentatiously; a large man screams at the camera (a favorite Coen visual); said camera fixates on a particular action (a woman’s leg being shaved) only to bring it out again later for an ironic curtain call; and once again, the pursuit of money brings only damnation. The Coens give us heroes with reasonable enough goals, who resort to unreasonable tactics to achieve them; part of the comedy of their work is that the consequences are so out of proportion to the characters’ basic intent, and this is why the Coens have often been labelled wanton boys pulling the wings off flies.

Here, at least, the absurdist cruelty has context; as Ed slumps through one misfortune after another, he becomes a walking commentary on an entire genre. The Man Who Wasn’t There may not be as immediately engaging as the Coens’ other movies — it has few fanciful “Coen moments” and will be the least likely film in the portfolio to be watched and cackled over repeatedly — but it’s still a gorgeous piece of work, as different from the Coens’ other films as the other films are from each other. Even a mere Coen exercise in style is worthwhile, because they not only have style, they understand it.

¹That wife, at the time, was Angelina Jolie.

Payback

February 5, 1999

paybackPorter (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.