Delayed by the cash-cow that was Lethal Weapon 4, Mel Gibson skips from payday to Payback in this loose remake of John Boorman's 1967 thriller, Point Blank. Lifting the original's coiled storyline, only the nuts and bolts used to screw the plot's events together differ.
Thus, 32 years on, a vengeful Gibson replaces the vengeful Point Blank actor, Lee Marvin; the story's anti-hero now goes by the name of Porter, not Walker; and the original's Alcatraz-set heist becomes a simpler, back-alley hit-and-run in New York's Chinatown. Just as Boorman's stylish crime-movie was lauded as a masterful thriller, so Brian Helgeland's contemporary revamp manages to tap into its dark spirit. Better still, it also injects the crusty premise with a refreshingly new and satisfying edge.
If Payback is a blockbuster movie, it's everything that a typical blockbuster isn't: witty, clever and plot-heavy. It's also moody and unrepentantly vicious, its opening scene a session of grubby backroom doctoring as Gibson's bullet-riddled crook is sewn together by an unsanctioned, whisky-swilling street-surgeon. The rest is no less graphic, its nastiness splashed over a backdrop of the crime-afflicted city; a melting pot of hoods, hookers, sadists, freaks and crooked cops.
As a result, Gibson beats up (or gets beaten up by) almost every character he meets. From pillow-over-the-face executions to toes being methodically smashed by a hammer, Payback is relentless in its gritty portrayal of villainy. It also boasts comic touches: when Gibson brutally yanks a nose-ring from the nostril of a punkish drug-runner, it's guaranteed to make the audience squirm.
Unlike some of Gibson's recent outings, Payback has a distinctive style and attitude. Where most modern thrillers veer on the side of slick and vibrant, Helgeland's tale has the look and feel of a '70s detective drama: he shoots using washed-out colours,and complements the action with a crooning soundtrack. Where most modern thrillers edge on the big and brash, Payback feels small and intimate, avoiding quick-fix audience payoffs (shoot-outs, car chases) in favour of compact locations, good dialogue and intelligent character development. It moves at its own unhurried pace, unravelling a plot that settles into a repetitive routine of clue-hunting, chatting and executions. Sure, there are moments of high action slotted neatly in (a drive-by shooting, Chinese torture), but the story doesn't need them. In Payback, plot matters more than size.
Porter is not just a wheeler-dealer, a fraudster, liar and a burglar: he's also a cold-blooded killer. There's almost nothing he won't do in the pursuit of his lost $70,000 and, after being double-crossed and shot, he figures he's nothing to lose. Like Lethal Weapon's headcase Riggs, Porter is a hero out of control. Determined, focused and ruthlessly violent, he's about as far removed from a loveable rogue as you could hope to get. Gibson retains his trademark grin and charm, but they're just a small portion of Porter's sharp Machiavellian thuggery. It's a strong character, powerfully delivered by an actor who obviously relished the chance to step away from his Nice Guy persona.
Helgeland ties the plot strands together brilliantly with the taut finale. The meandering pace may be off-putting to some, but the plot has staying power: it's regularly inventive and often gruesome. Of the supporting cast, ex-ER star Maria Bello stands out, proving that there's more to her than looking good with a stethoscope. James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson also contribute their heavyweight credibility to a very unusual, left-of-centre crime movie which rings up everything from credit card fraud to S&M. '"Do you know your value?"' quips a Mob boss to his perverted underling. "'You're a sadist. That comes in handy'." Payback may be morally bankrupt and violent, but it spins its viciousness with a knowing wink.