Payback is a style-over-substance film and being so it falls into two distinct categories: the occasional good one that is highly entertaining or, more often then not, one that completely fails to entertain and realize only on style to skate by. Which is Payback? And does Payback succeed in entertaining?
Porter (Mel Gibson) is a bad guy, a really bad guy. We see how bad he is as the movie opens. He picks pockets, he steals from the homeless, and he doesn’t tip waitresses. He’s not a likeable guy by any means, but he’s the guy we’re stuck with throughout the film. Cool! For once we don’t have to follow some ultra-goodie-two-shoes through a film. And this is a nice twist.
So, what’s Porter’s rub with the world? After robbing some Chinese mobsters of $140,000 using a car and a big crash, Porter is shot and left for dead by his partner in crime and best friend, Val (Gregg Henry). Val steals Porter’s $70,000 share of the stolen money. Porter is not dead though and he is out to get his $70,000, no more, no less. As it turns out that Val is part of the mob, or as known in the film as “the outfit”, but was kicked out. Val buys himself back into the outfit with the stolen money. Now, not only does Porter have to deal with Val and the Chinese mobsters, he has the outfit on his back also. During the film, Porter rekindles a relationship with a hooker, Rosie (Maria Bello), whom he used to know and she is key to Porter’s plans of revenge.
Gibson doesn’t do anything special in Payback. His character Porter is nothing more than his Lethal Weapon character Martin Riggs gone bad. Gibson can do this kind of role with his eyes closed; a maniac guy who has no real care for his life, but has subtle humour within.
There are two performers to look for in Payback: Maria Bello and William Devane. The last time I saw Bello was on ER last season. She is wonderful in Payback as the only friend that Porter has. I hope to see Bello in more films soon. Devane is the best thing Payback has. His onscreen presence is a hoot and a holler. I wish that he had more screen time because he had one juicy and funny part. Watch for the scene where he puts on lip-gloss. Devane takes this scene over-the-top and it turns out to be one of the funniest scenes in the film.
Payback is the first film helmed by Brian Helgeland who is better known for his writing: The Postman, L.A. Confidential, and Assassins. He has a steady hand at directing, but he still needs a bit of work at keeping and maintaining tone. At times, the film switches tones abruptly and these switches feel out of place. From time to time the film will go from serious to humourous, not working its way into the humour. This left the audience, and myself, unable to catch some of the humour. There are some funny bits in this film, but they are lost to Helgeland’s inability to integrate them well with the serious portions of the film.
The script by Helgeland and Terry Hayes, based on Richard Starks’s book The Hunter, is nothing special. I do like how snappy the dialogue was, but next to that, this is just a film about a bad guy getting revenge on bad people. What makes Payback stick out is the bluish tint that is added to the film noir look. This bluish tint comes from the process in which the film was developed. And it is this look that makes up for most of Paybacks style – the film is a work of art.
One thing that stuck out as strange was Lucy Liu’s presence in the film. She basically takes her character from Fox’s Ally McBeal and turns it up a notch. The sight of her in the film is quite jarring and as I overheard one audience member say, “That Ally McBeal girl being in this film was corny.” But, it was cool hearing her say, “Hubba hubba.”
Payback does succeed in entertaining, though it’s mostly pulp entertainment. The minute you step out of the theatre, most of the film will have slipped from memory. Catch Payback at a matinee showing to see the performances of Maria Bello and William Devane. A warning to those who are weak at the heart, if you’re squeamish to violence then Payback is not for you. There are multiple scenes of heavy and graphic violence. Plus, there is some graphic torture scenes.