ⓘ Payback (1999 film)


ⓘ Payback (1999 film)

Payback is a 1999 American neo-noir action thriller film written and directed by Brian Helgeland in his directorial debut, and starring Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, and David Paymer. It is based on the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake using the pseudonym Richard Stark, which had earlier been adapted into the 1967 film noir classic Point Blank, directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin. In 2006, Helgeland issued a directors cut that differs substantially from the version released by the studio.


1. Plot

Face down on the kitchen table of an underground abortionist, barely conscious and with two large bullet wounds in his back, lies career thief and former Marine Porter. The unlicensed doctor uses the whiskey he is drinking as sterilizing agent and digs out the bullets. Porter spends five months recuperating.

Porter begins tracking down his estranged wife Lynn and former partner-in-crime Val Resnick. Porter was betrayed by both following a $140.000 heist from local Chinese Triads. Resnick had manipulated Lynn into complicity with a picture showing Porter with another woman. Lynn then shot Porter and the two left him for dead. Val rejoined a criminal syndicate named "the Outfit", using $130.000 of the heist money to pay off an outstanding debt.

Porter is intent on claiming his $70.000 cut, steadily climbing up the criminal hierarchy. He first finds Lynn, now a heroin-addicted prostitute. Taking pity on her disastrous predicament, he confines her to her bedroom, only to discover her dead from a heroin overdose the next day. Lynns drug delivery guy points Porter towards lowlife drug dealer and gambler named Arthur Stegman. Porter finds Stegman in the company of two corrupt police detectives, Hicks and Leary, who start harassing Porter for a share of his goal.

Porter enlists the help of Rosie, a call girl affiliated with the Outfit. He was once her limo driver and eventual lover, and a picture taken during their one-night stand was the one used by Resnick to stoke Lynns jealousy and facilitate the original betrayal. Rosie tells Porter that Resnick is barred from soliciting Outfit prostitutes because his sadistic tendencies nearly killed one of them, possibly Rosie herself.

Resnick is seeing a Triad-connected dominatrix named Pearl when Porter violently re-enters his life. Resnick begs the Outfit for help and explains why Porter demands $70.000, but is told to solve his own problems. He then pins the $140.000 heist solely on Porter in order to have him murdered by Pearls associates. This attempt fails, and Resnick follows Porters trail to Rosies apartment, beats her and recognizes her as a former victim of his extreme sexual deviancy. Porter appears in time to prevent further abuse and shoots Resnick dead, not before obtaining the names of Outfit bosses Fairfax and Carter. He takes Rosie to a secret apartment but finds it rigged with plastic explosives, connected to the telephone by three of Carters hitmen. Porter kills them and later confronts Carter in his own office, threatening to kill him if unless he pays the $70.000. Carter states he is only an underboss, thus unauthorized to make financial decisions. Porter then forces Carter to phone the real boss, named Bronson. When Bronson refuses over the phone, Porter carries out his threat and kills Carter. Porter then frames Hicks and Leary by planting Learys fingerprints on the gun used to kill Resnick, as well as stealing Hickss badge and leaving it with the gun in Resnicks hand.

With the aid of Rosie, Porter kidnaps Bronsons son Johnny. He then visits and threatens Fairfax; Hicks and Leary, who are waiting outside Fairfaxs house, are promptly arrested by Internal Affairs on account of the false evidence left earlier. A shootout ensues involving Porter, Stegman, his driver, Pearl and the Triads; only Porter and Pearl survive. Porter is later captured by Fairfaxs men, taken to a warehouse and beaten for hours. Bronson arrives with his own men, shows Porter a bag containing the symbolic $130.000 that he is never meant to have, and supervises a more gruesome torture method to extract his sons location.

Porter finally gives an address that turns out to be his own secret apartment. He is locked inside a car trunk and driven by Bronson, Fairfax and their men to the flat which, unbeknownst to them, still contains the unexploded bomb left earlier by Carters men. Porter then manages to grab the car phone and call his own apartment in time for Bronson to pick the telephone. After his captors meet an explosive demise, Porter goes to pick up Rosie. Leaving Johnny behind, the two take off with the money the mob owed him and drive off to Canada to begin a new life.


2. Production

The film was shot during September/November 1997, in Chicago and Los Angeles, though neither city is referred to in the film. Although credited as director, Brian Helgelands cut of the film was not the theatrical version released to audiences. After the end of principal photography, Helgelands version was deemed too dark for the mainstream public. Following a script rewrite by Terry Hayes, director Helgeland was replaced by the production designer John Myhre, who reshot 30% of the film. The intent was to make the Porter character accessible. The films tagline became: "Get Ready to Root for the Bad Guy." A potentially controversial scene between Porter and Lynn which arguably involves spousal abuse was excised and more plot elements were added to the third act. After 10 days of reshoots, a new opening scene and voiceover track also were added, and Kris Kristofferson walked on as a new villain.

Helgelands version, Straight Up: The Directors Cut, was released on DVD, Blu-ray, and HD DVD on April 10, 2007, after an October 2006 run at the Austin Film Festival. The Directors Cut version features a female Bronson, voiced by Sally Kellerman, does not include the voice-over by Porter and several Bronson-related scenes. During their scuffle which is longer than in the theatrical version and was the main source of controversy, Porter earlier tells Lynn that his picture with Rosie was taken before they met, thereby rendering her jealousy unjustified. This version has an entirely different, ambiguous ending where Porter is seriously wounded in a train station shootout and driven off by Rosie.

A June 4, 2012, look at "movies improved by directors cuts" by The A.V. Club described Payback: Straight Up as "a marked improvement on the unrulier original."


2.1. Production Editing

Mel Gibson stated in a short interview released as a DVD extra that it "wouldve been ideal to shoot in black and white." He noted that "people want a color image" and that the actual film used a bleach bypass process to tint the film. In addition to this, the production design used muted shades of red, brown, and grey for costumes, sets, and cars for further effect.


3. Reception

Box office

Payback was well received at the box office. The film made $21.221.526 in its opening weekend in North America. It eventually grossed $81.526.121 in North America and $80.100.000 in other territories, totaling $161.626.121 worldwide.

Critical reception

The review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 54% based on 74 reviews from critics, and a weighted average of 5.9 out of 10. The websites critical consensus states, "Sadistic violence and rote humor saddle a predictable action premise." Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B-" on an A+ to F scale.

Roger Ebert gave the film a three-star rating out of four in his review, writing, "There is much cleverness and ingenuity in Payback, but Mel Gibson is the key. The movie wouldnt work with an actor who was heavy on his feet, or was too sincere about the material."