Payback (1999)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello
Extras: Documentaries, Trailers

In his action movies Mel Gibson is handsome, funny and always a good guy, right? Well, let’s reconsider that for a minute. In his latest film "Payback", Mel Gibson plays a not-so-good character and he is actually not-so funny either. Mel Gibson plays a rather serious part for a change in a cold and edgy thriller that is very atypical for Gibson’s previous portrayals in the "Lethal Weapon" series, "Bird On A Wire", "Ransom" and countless others. This time Mel is bad, he is quick to put a bullet into people’s heads if they annoy him or simply don’t answer fast enough. He is a gangster seeking redemption within the ranks of organized crime, always on the edge of being killed himself. Paramount Home Video has now released "Payback" on DVD and believe me, this is a far cry from a standard Mel Gibson movie.

Porter (Mel Gibson) and Val (Gregg Henry), two small time robbers decide to move in on a group of money carriers. The money they carry is coming from obscure sources and obviously illegally obtained. Hence it seems the perfect target. These gang members would never report the loss of it to the authorities. Val needs the money to pay his way back into the Mafia while Porter needs it to settle down. In a daring stunt they stage a frontal car collision, take the money and run. But not the expected $350.000 dollars are inside the suitcase, but only a mere $140.000, just enough for Val to pay back his depts. Shot in the back by his own wife, Porter learns that Val has set him up for the money and then leaves him in the gutters to die.

Five months after the incident, Porter is back! The bullet holes have healed and his thirst for revenge is as unquenched as that of the Count of Monte Cristo. He wants is his share of the money and he starts tracking down his wife to find a clue of Val’s whereabouts, but his wife overdoses on heroin before he can even ask her a single question.

Lonely, Porter seeks out his former love-affair, Rosie (Maria Bello), a former hooker within the ring of organized crime. Hesitantly she tells Porter where to find Val and without deliberation, Porter goes right into the lion’s den, confronting Val with a gun to his head. Having an outsider come so close to the syndicate is a thorn in the side of some of the organization’s leading men, and they plan to rid themselves of the nuisance, never factoring in Porter as a serious challenge.

Even with the entire Mafia, corrupt cops and rampant gang members on his heels, Porter is determined to get his money. Avoiding every hit that is placed on him he finds ways to make the triad’s leaders listen to him. Until he seems to meet his final match.

"Payback" is based on a novel by Richard Stark called "The Hunter", and as such a loose remake of the 1967 Lee Marvin thriller "Point Blank". With its dubious premise of a robber who is going to lengths to get back the money he claims is his, while in fact it is stolen to begin with, "Payback" is not your clean-cut action film of black and white personalities. As a matter of fact there is not a single good guy in the entire film. Every character you see is shady and desolate to say the least. Ranging from corrupt policemen, drug dealers, hitmen and mobsters, all the way to money launderers, pimps and pushers, not one of the characters has a clean vest. As a result it is very hard to like any of the characters, including Mel Gibson’s character Porter. It is impossible to tolerate the drastic confrontational methods he uses, without the slightest hint of diplomacy or repentance. Fortunately the film is highly stylized and manages to make it fun to have the bad guys succeed.

It is a highly controversial message however. One that almost feels as if what Porter does is right and justifiable. It is the glorification of remorseless self-centeredness and self-adulation at any price, and to an extend it is a concept that feels more than only slightly out of place in today’s society, unless the filmmakers wanted to educate the people how to excessively live out their arrogant monomaniac complexes. There is a lot of violence in the film, gratuitous to a large extent, although to its credit I have to admit it is not always in-your-face. What makes it more acceptable and fairly fun is the fact that it always hits the bad guys. No matter who’s being mowed down in this film due to the lack of any good characters the ones who kick the buckets do so well deservedly.

"Payback" paints an utterly dark and menacing image of urban sprawls, of a life figuratively without sunshine. Even the physical images feel as if there were no sun in the skies. Subdued with faded and cold colors the film always stays within its own blue-tinged world, never breaking out to make room for something good or nice. It is a look that is highly reminiscent to many great 70s thrillers, and from the initial atmosphere "Dirty Harry" or "Shaft" immediately come to mind when watching the opening minutes with the voice over and its almost monochromatic look.

Despite my personal dislike of the film’s questionable objective and excessive display of violence, "Payback" is actually a well-crafted action thriller. The performances are good across the board and most notably Mel Gibson comes across frighteningly realistic and erratic. From his opening narration to the final scenes there is always something tangible about his portrayal, something that makes the character believable despite the odds he is facing and his abstruse succeeding in opposing them. Supported by a cast that is just as convincing, the entire film uses mostly characterizations and the results from it to drive the story. Watch out for Ally MacBeal’s Lucy Liu and a dominatrix role that almost feels like an intentional extension of her snotty part as Ling in the TV series.

This DVD from Paramount Home Video contains the film’s original <$PS,widescreen> version in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio that is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TV sets. The disc contains a highly detailed transfer of the film that nicely restores the film’s blunt and blue-saturated look. Given the fact that the film never uses a very realistic color scheme, the hard-edged images of the movie are reproduced nicely on this DVD. The compression is very good and despite the many dimly lit settings, the disc produces a very pleasing image without noticeable artifacts or noise. Blacks are solid and highlights are natural, giving this film a pleasing picture with fine definition and shadow delineation.

"Payback" contains a soundtrack that is highly reminiscent to 70s films and TV shows like "Shaft", creating a very different feel than expected. Given the pale 70s look of the film, the music is perfectly fitting these pictures. It is presented in a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix, as well as alternative <$DS,Dolby Surround> mixes in English and French. Making good use of the sonic spectrum "Payback" has a good bass extension and a lively, transparent high end. Surround usage is aggressive during the entire film, which helps to create a very active sound field throughout.

Unfortunately Paramount did not include the film’s original ending, which supposedly showed Mel Gibson dead, on this DVD. It would have been nice to having had a glimpse at that original ending. As you can certainly gather from this review, "Payback" is not a movie for everyone. While it has its strengths and strong characterizations, overall the film leaves a mixed taste in my mouth. It comes in a great presentation on this DVD from Paramount Home Video and if you want to check out some edgy, hard-core action thriller with a high body count "Payback" is definitely worth a look.