Brian Helgeland is an award-winning screenwriter, earning both an Oscar and a Razzie a few days apart. He made his feature film directorial debut with Payback, starring and produced by Mel Gibson. It is based on Donald E. Westlake’s novel The Hunter, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, and was made into a movie once before, John Boorman’s Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin.
Well almost, because he didn’t get to finish the film. Helgeland was removed due to studio personnel becoming nervous that audiences wouldn’t accept the dark, bleak film he was creating and his unwillingness to make their changes. New additions included narration from Mel’s character, new characters, the entire third act, and a happier ending.
Nowhere on this new DVD’s extras does it explain why, but Helgeland was given the rare opportunity to cut the film to his vision. This isn’t some double-dip marketing scam where a couple of deleted scenes, which were wisely deleted, are added. This is a true “Director’s Cut,” very much a different film from the theatrical release, and a worthwhile endeavor because the film is great.
Payback opens with a definition of the word “principle,” and then we meet Porter.
Helgeland’s script is streamlined and purposeful. The opening credits reveal some things about Porter without the crutch of expository dialogue. He takes whatever he needs without qualm: money from a homeless guy, the wallet of someone who looks like him, a waitress’ cigarettes. All without a second thought. Emotionally, he’s not in a good place because he has trouble smiling.
Porter follows a woman, Lynn, home and breaks into her apartment. She knows him and thought he was dead. They talk briefly in the kitchen and then a fight breaks out. Porter smacks her around. It catches the viewer off guard because this appears to be quite a different role for Mel. Porter is our protagonist and while intriguing, certainly isn’t likable. Later, as more of their history is revealed, Porter’s treatment doesn’t seem as harsh upon reflection.
Porter takes Lynn to the bedroom where he finds a little music box where she keeps her heroin and works. He takes them, jamming a needle and a wedding ring into the wall, telling us who she is without either character saying it. He locks his wife in the bedroom, but like all junkies, she has a secret stash hidden and is dead by morning.
The man responsible for supplying her is the same man who double-crossed Porter and left him for dead. Val and Porter stole $140,000 from Chinese gangsters. Val needed all of it to buy his way into a crime syndicate known as the Outfit. He set up Porter to be killed, so he could take all the money. However, Porter survived. He wants his cut, $70,000. No more, no less. He won’t take “No” for an answer, and won’t allow anyone to get in his way. Not the Outfit, the Chinese gang, or even the cops.
Porter is a brutal man in a brutal world, but he has a shot at redemption. He has a chance to save Rosie, a call girl he used to drive around and had a brief relationship with, from the life she is in. This is why Porter has come back from the dead, metaphorically at the very least, and possibly literally, since we don’t know how he survived Val’s double cross. Porter’s fate is revealed in the final shot for those paying attention.
Payback is a tough, gritty, crime thriller similar to the film noir of the ‘40s and the anti-heroes of the ‘70s, best watched in a dark, smoke-filled room while sipping your favorite whiskey. I’m curious to see the changes in the theatrical version, and it would have been nice if they had included it in a two-DVD set, but I doubt it can top this.
The DVD has a lot of good extras. Helgeland discuses his version of the film on the commentary track, covering some of the same material he and others discuss on “Same Story, Different Movie – Creating Payback: The Director’s Cut.” While I understand the studio getting nervous, I have to wonder what script they greenlit. Two features show the crew behind the scenes, on location in Chicago and on set in Los Angeles. The best feature is an interview with Westlake. Good to see the man who was the source for this story getting well-deserved recognition.