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'Payback' Pays Off

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 1999

  Movie Critic

Mel Gibson, left, and Gregg Henry star in "Payback." (Paramount)

Brian Helgeland
Mel Gibson;
Maria Bello;
James Coburn;
William Devane;
David Paymer;
Gregg Henry;
Bill Duke;
Deborah Unger;
Sterling Wolfe
Running Time:
1 hour, 42 minutes
Extreme physical, sexual and firearms violence, as well as profanity
No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Lots more Mr. Ice Guy.

In his new film, "Payback," Mel Gibson shoots people in the face, pounds their ribs to chalky residue, blows them up, sets them aflame and otherwise reduces the population of a large city by quite a number, all without a flicker of emotional involvement.

The film could be a trip, a kick, a hoot. But it's a trap, a quirk, a snootful. Watching it is like riding a roller coaster through a meat grinder. Then, when it's almost over and you think you can go home, a gorilla crushes two of the bare Gibson toes with a ball-peen hammer while Kris Kristofferson howls in delight. That's when you throw up on your new shoes.

Part of the issue here is violence, and the eternal question of how much is too much. Hard question, but I do know the following: This much is too much. Violence in drama and particularly on film can certainly be powerful, even cathartic. The sanctimonious will never admit how much pure fun it can be. It can also be terrifying or acrobatic or even comic, but whatever, it must have meaning. The violence in "Payback" has none; it's weightless, like smoke or gas, and finally becomes routine, no matter how lurid. The director, Brian Helgeland, sits there passively recording as many people are folded, spindled or mutilated, usually in close-up. And here's almost nothing else of interest, such as charm, style, character, story or even neat explosions.

Gibson plays Porter, a mysterioso armed robber who is betrayed by a pal named Val (dreary loudmouth Gregg Henry) and his own wife, Lynn (washed-out blonde Deborah Kara Unger), after a heist. Left for dead, Porter recovers, returns to the unidentified city and begins a hunt for Val. He finds him, now connected to the syndicate. Vengeance? No, that's God's. He just wants his money. When Val can't satisfy his needs, Porter decides that the debt transfers to Val's employers, so he starts killing people up the corporate ladder to get his money back.

The source of the story is a Donald Westlake novel, "The Hunter," written under the pen name of Richard Stark, though in an au courant spirit (and to increase the gunfight and beating factor), Helgeland throws in a subplot involving a fashionable Asian gang. But the film's true inspiration is the unacknowledged "Point Blank," a movie drawn from the same Westlake novel. This 1967 film, directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin, achieved instant cult status for its spooky grace. It was an existential gangster film, with the deadpan Marvin – named, more resonantly, Walker – stalking a hierarchy that included Carroll O'Connor and Keenan Wynn. Here's one difference: Gibson is left for dead; Marvin is left dead. His return to Earth (symbolized by a swim across 'Frisco Bay from Alcatraz with six bullets in him) and his quest for vengeance become a ghost's progress; it may even be the last dream of a dying man. It explains the movie's chilly languor and grace, and Marvin's own iciness. See, he's not deadpan; he's dead. Gibson is just annoying; he's like a chipmunk with a Smith & Wesson.

But violence is only a part of the campaign. The film is really a corporate appropriation (by Icon Productions Inc., M. Gibson, sole proprietor) of another movie virtue, declaring it the intellectual property of its CEO. What virtue? The virtue that cares not to speak its name: cool. What is cool? If you have to ask, you don't know and if you have to argue you don't have it. But I'll tell you anyway: It's not just affectlessness, or smart comebacks written by someone else or flashy, phony gun handling. It's a deep reserve of masculine confidence into which the camera can tap only if it's there. Marvin always had it; Walter Matthau had it in Don Siegel's brilliant "Charley Varrick," which "Payback" also loots. But he only had it then. McQueen always had it, the mid-career Eastwood had it, the later Sam Elliott shows flashes. Chow Yun Fat, 24 hours a day. Maybe John Wayne, but only in "The Searchers" or "Red River."

Gibson? As if.

The movie itself is a great big piece of wannabe cool. It affects nonchalance as it watches the blood-spattered drubbings and piercings and detonations take place. It enjoys an antic spirit of spiky sadomasochism and it treats blond women like vanilla wafers. We're supposed to adore Gibson's sang-froid and his toughness, but everything, a few good lines aside, is so witless and monotonous it becomes numbing.

In the end, the movie isn't a guilty pleasure but a gigantic injection of Novocain to the medulla oblongata.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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