(director/writer: Brian Helgeland; screenwriter: Terry Hayes; cinematographer: Ericson Core; editor: Kevin Stitt; cast: Mel Gibson (Porter) , (Val) Gregg Henry, (Rosie) Maria Bello, (Stegman) David Paymer, (Lynn) Deborah Kara Unger, (Carter) William Devane, (Bronson) Kris Kristofferson, (Mr. Fairfax) James Coburn, (Crooked Cop) Bill Duke; Runtime: 101; Paramount Pictures; 1999)
“Rips off the way a noir film is shot and looks.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a very cleverly done film and it should do good in the box-office. It is the kind of film Americans like to watch to take their mind off the more serious things occurring at the time this movie opened, such as the political scandal and impeachment hearings involving our Prez and his lady intern friend.

To get into the spirit of the film you must suspend your disbelief and accept this as a heroic fantasy, with the hero, Porter (Mel Gibson), being a tainted one. Porter is basically fighting for his own pride and perverted sense of ethics, and figures his life is worth $70,000, that being the figure he is owed by his ex-crime partner Val (Gregg). Val is a sado-masochist with no redeeming human qualities, who along with Porter robbed an Oriental crime family to get the unsavory dough before he double-crossed him and supposedly had him killed. Mel also does the voice-over ala noir-style in a deep laconic voice, you know, like a Sam Spade would do it.

Payback rips off the way a noir film is shot and looks, (or maybe, in a certain sense, pays it homage!!!) and does it with pizzazz. The big city it chooses for its locale is Chicago with its tall buildings and El trains. The only thing it fails to pick up from those great b/w noir films from the ’40s and ’50s, is that their heroes were fighting the system, not out for their own ends only. This little difference is easy to ignore, but it is bothersome when I see how close Mel came to sniffing out the essence of a noir film. But I’m glad to report, ever so close, but no cigar! You just can’t imitate that secret ingredient without feeling the real thing. So take your $70,000 clams you will extract from “the outfit”, and enjoy that money with the reformed whore with a heart of mush, Rosie (Maria)! You both deserve it. You were both great to look at on the screen. You played your hands well; I enjoyed the film as a guilty pleasure.

Needless to say, there was not much to the plot. This is a pure revenge film. Porter is set-up by his junkie wife Lynn (Deborah) and his friend Val, because Val needs $130,000 to square things with the “outfit” and get back into the organization — where he can really get good money and protection from the mob.

The action scenes of this heist are well-done. Porter notices that the gang is not wearing their seat belts; so on their rounds, when they are carrying the loot, he crashes head-on, killing them and then robbing them of the loot. Then Val does his double-cross thing as Porter’s wife shoots her hubby and takes all the money, which happens to be $140,000. That is why our hero insists on only getting $70,000 back, the sum he believes he is ethically owed for the work he did. This running gag lends a welcomed humor to the story. At least the filmmakers are having fun with this one, and it shows.

For the remainder of the film, Porter is either getting beat up or doing the beatings himself. In between there are assorted killings the traditional way, with a heater. But there is also a car full of mobsters getting blown up and some get blown up via the rigged phone. There is plenty of action, so don’t worry you don’t have to think of anything when you are watching this flick, everything moves at breakneck speed. A duo of corrupt cops get into the act; one black, the other white, very politically correct, I must say. These filmmakers have a great eye for such detail.

The film starts picking up steam when Porter comes back from the dead to contact the sleaze drug dealer (Paymer). He is the one who sells bad heroin to Porter’s dear wife. Then there is the Oriental gang, and their interest turns to Porter when they are tipped off that he robbed them. So, all in all, you have a lot of good action scenes going down, plus a lot of funny one-liners. I laughed out loud when Porter said, “If I was any dumber I would have become a cop.” You see, Porter is acting very dumb going after the mob and its big bosses: Kristofferson, Coburn, and Devane. I, especially, liked seeing Devane, he is a throwback to the old film noir foils. There is also an homage scene or a rip-off, whichever you prefer, it doesn’t matter, when Porter rips the earring off a drug dealer’s ear taking a chunk of his ear with it. You can’t help remembering Roman Polansky did something similar to that in Chinatown.

The filmmaker is first-time director and screenwriter of L.A. Confidential, Brian Helgeland. The film is based on a novel, “The Hunter,” by Richard Stark. It works mostly because Mel is great for the part.

Mel Gibson in Payback (1999)