In the late 1990s most people were familiar with the mediocre quality of recent Mel Gibson vehicles. Films such as Ransom, Conspiracy Theory, and Payback were all of such poor quality it was hard to believe Gibson would ever reach the heights he had with other, superior action films (Tequila Sunrise comes to mind).
Arguably the worst of these films, Payback, was met with immediate disdain by most critics due to its bizarre mixture of unnecessary torture sequences and unrealistic but optimistic situations. Consider a scene where Porter, a dog named after Mel Gibson's protagonist, is shot several times by the antagonist, but is found to have survived.
In 2005, Paramount saw fit to allow the director, Brian Helgeland, writer of the brilliant L.A. Confidential, to re-edit the film as he desired. This process would lead to the establishment of Payback as an excellent action thriller, eliminating the dreadful voice-over, the bizarre torture sequences, the dog's miraculous recovery, as well as any and all traces of Kris Kristofferson's pitiful performance as a replacement for Sally Kellerman's voice as the menacing Bronson.
Payback opens with Mel Gibson, Porter in this case, walking purposefully down the street towards an unknown but specific destination. It closes with Porter in a car next to the provocative Rosie (the wonderful as always Maria Bello), passing out and possibly dying, with the vague last words, “Just drive.” How Helgeland turned what was a subpar effort on all parts into one of the most interesting and open-ended films of Gibson's career is anyone's guess, but I suggest the answer lies in the perpetuity of his vision and his constitution in carrying it out. The power of such a simple procedure as removing the voice-over is reminiscent of the transformation of the similarly bewildering theatrical release of 1982's Blade Runner, adding ambiguity where there was once information super-saturation.
At the time of its initial release Paramount did not believe that audiences were ready to see Mel Gibson play a vengeful bastard of a protagonist, so Gibson, acting as the producer that he was, demanded they remove a magnificent scene where Porter has a violent outburst towards his ex-wife, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), and viciously beats her in her kitchen. This powerful scene is now present in the director's cut, as well as many other additions and subtractions that prove to be the tremendous push into the esoteric yet artistic arena that Payback required.
Shot in deep saturation, there is something gritty and very real about this version of Payback. This touch of noir-infused, street level grit permeates most of the film, making evident the point that there is no escape from the fact that Porter is a real son-of-a-bitch. It's a film with no real hero, per se, but with a protagonist who we identify with mostly because it's his story, and in the end, it's the story of his redemption.
To compare the two versions now is to compare a middling straightforward action vehicle for a beloved star with an incendiary, noir-influenced, plot-driven action-drama beset on all sides by dark, nearly oppressive pessimism. Based on the Richard Stark (a pseudonym for the exceptional crime novelest Donald E. Westlake) novel The Hunter, Payback Straight Up: The Director's Cut deserves a reconsideration as an excellently conceived and fully realized film.