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'Payback' Pays Off

By Michael O'Sullivan
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
For profanity, torture, execution, drug use and sadomasochism
What could possibly justify the number of bullet holes that are drilled into people during "Payback"?

For starters, a sharp and funny script, understated acting, stylish, neo-noir visuals plus a familiar little moral that sounds a lot like Thou Shalt Not Steal. Its deceptively simple story – about a Joe Blow named Porter (Gibson) and his efforts against great odds to retrieve some cash that has been stolen from him – will resonate with anyone who has ever felt ripped off and wanted to do something about it, and who hasn't?

The only hitch is that Porter stole the money to begin with.

It's not a lot of loot either: just $70,000, which is his 50 percent cut of a payroll robbery committed with underworld partner Val Resnick (Gregg Henry). It seems Val owes $130,000 to the mob (here referred to as the more corporate-sounding "the Outfit") so, with the help of Porter's junkie wife (Deborah Kara Unger) and a couple of strategic ounces of lead in the back, Val relieves Porter of his take and leaves him for dead.

And that, as they say, just ain't right.

What distinguishes "Payback" from the run-of-the-mill crime caper is the relatively paltry sum of money that Porter believes is coming to him. Not $7 million, not even $700,000, but $70,000. That's all he wants. Porter isn't motivated by greed; the amount in question is less than the cost of the suits worn by one of the mobsters Porter confronts. "What is it, the principle?" asks the dapper don Fairfax (James Coburn) with incredulity as he watches Porter shoot through a valise of expensive haberdashery.

Well, yeah.

Venal though he may be, Porter is that old friend, a thief with a sense of honor, and Gibson plays the combination of sad-sack Everyman and avenging angel to the hilt. Breathing tobacco smoke like oxygen, he narrates the tale with a rumbling Raymond Chandleresque voice-over that has him dropping such hard-boiled bons mots as "Old habits die hard. If you don't kick them they kick you."

That script – co-written by Terry Hayes and director Brian Helgeland – is almost too noir for its own good at times, but Gibson somehow manages to pull its implausibility off, aided by the film stock's washed-out monochrome look that casts him in the same chiaroscuro lighting that Bogie and other black-and-white legends basked in.

The Elmore Leonardish supporting cast is equally fun, with particularly entertaining turns from Lucy Liu as a dominatrix, David Paymer as a craven crook and Kris Kristofferson as the Outfit's leathery CEO.

At one point, all these folks (not to mention a pair of cops and the gang he originally robbed) are after Porter and his hooker girlfriend (Maria Bello). Our antihero already has two holes in the soft tissue, has taken a horrific beating and been locked in the trunk of a car. Bloodied but unbowed, he's much more than the human Timex that takes a licking and keeps on ticking. If it's not too corny, he's the triumph of the human spirit – albeit with a roscoe in his pocket for insurance.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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