Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Payback Time

By Jay Stringer

I'll be taking a couple of weeks off. Look out for the DSD debut of 'terrible mind' and freelance penmonkey Chuck Wendig next week. Before i go, i wanted to drop off something of a tribute to our very own Russel D Mclean. This little review is based on one that first appeared elsewhere a few years ago. Russel has an event this coming monday at Kirkaldy Central Library. You could go along and ask him about this, one of his favourite films. Or, you could ask him about his movie deal. Either way, go along and enjoy.

Anyone who doesn't know the story, catch up quick;
PAYBACK was written and directed by the guy who wrote the screenplay for L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. It’s based on the novel THE HUNTER, which was also adapted into the stone classic POINT BLANK starring Lee Marvin.

Brian Helgeland, the writer/director, set out to make a film that paid homage to a
different era of crime film. The hero is a bastard who kills in cold blood, and there is violence to women and unarmed men. Because the world is violent to women and unarmed men. There was a dog in it, and unfortunately for lassie fans everywhere, the dog wasn't going to survive.

It was written, cast, filmed and edited as a tribute to Richard Starks book. And Mel Gibson played against type as a relentless, cold eyed killer.

After seeing the finished version, Gibson and the studio baulked. It seems that when they set out to fund a dark and violent crime film, they had actually hoped it would turn out to be Sesame Street. It was decided, perhaps correctly, that the public didn't want that version of Mel Gibson anymore than they wanted him to be drunken or anti semitic. They’d had a decade of seeing him in palatable action adventures, of being the 'loveable rogue' and, as Russel has said, the schoolboys idea of a tough guy. There was also the feeling that cinema should reflect its time, and you couldn’t release a 70’s crime film in the late 90’s. I don’t agree, but I wasn’t the demographic the studio was chasing.

The director was removed, a hip blue colour filter was added on and a comedic voiceover was crammed on. Most crucially, the film was given new first and third acts, and a whole new antagonist was created. The new third act included such bullshit Hollywood ideas as an 'ending'.

The released version wasn't
awful. It doesn't belong up there with Transformers 2 or Bram Stoker's Dracula. But the problem was, it wasn't very good, either. It was that odd hollywood enigma; a property that has been brought and filmed to not resemble the source material at all. It aimed at 'wacky' and failed by some margin. It was just another processed cheese crime movie, with a beginning, middle and end (all in the right order.) It belongs on the shelf with all the other 'quirky crime films' that quickly vanish from the mind and never need to be re-watched.

The directors’ cut was made available on DVD a few years back, though i think it's vanishing pretty quickly. And it wasn't just a simple case of throwing in a few deleted scenes, this was a blank slate process. The avid tapes no longer existed, which is a
technical term for "oooops." Because of this, the new version was even more of a homage to a bygone era; it was edited direct from the film prints. Yes from film. That crazy substance that most filmmakers wouldn't even know to look at anymore, let alone edit with.

The film has no real beginning and no real ending. Just lots of middle.

It starts with Gibson’s PORTER walking into the city across a bridge. Nothing to his name, we see him stealing money from a blind man (in the ‘Gibson cut’ the blind man was only pretending to be blind, here he is the real deal). He steals a wallet, gets some clothes and a meal, and starts his revenge spree. Pretty soon we see him beating the shit out of his wife. It’s a brutal scene, with no attempt to show any context or to justify the scene. It just is. Later on, through flashback, we do see why he’s doing it. And on the documentary, both of the actors involved (Gibson and Deborah Unger) talk about it in good detail.

-Gibson; “
If he didn’t care about her, he wouldn’t have visited.’
-Unger; "
She deserved the beating."

Porter’s moral code in the new cut is far more believable than any attempt to sanitize the character. He may beat the crap out of his wife for crossing him, but he also kills an unarmed man for insulting a woman. Not exactly a date film, eh?

The plot is lifted play by play from the book. His wife and his best friend stole seventy grand off him and left him for dead, full of bullets. He wants his money back. Now, funnily enough, the money wasn’t really his to begin with. But that is beside the point. When he finds out that the mob now has the money? Well, he’ll just have to take on the mob and ask for it back. Nicely, of course.

One nice exchange;
What is this, some kind of principle?
No, I just want my money back

A dog gets killed, did i mention that? Lots of people die with little warning and no romance. Violence is shown for what it is. When people complain about these films, complain that they glorify violence and crime, they’ve clearly never watched them. These are the most responsible films; they show that violence and crime happen. They show that neither are pretty. They give both of them consequences.

The final third of the film, one of the many things the studio refused to accept a decade ago, is wonderful. A lot happens, and nothing happens, all at once. It's over in a flash, with no heroism. The film ends in a deliberate nod to the opening. Just as we came into the story partway through, we leave before the end.

History can't be rewritten. PAYBACK is always going to be a strange failed comedy with Mel Gibson and a blue filter. But sitting beside that version on the shelf is a lean, grubby, faithful adaptation of Stark's novel. I really like this forgotten version, and I think a few other would too.


Dana King said...

Thanks, Jay. I was unaware of this. A friend recommended PAYBACK to me when it came out. I watched and thought, "Meh." Even then I felt as though they pulled their punches. Now that I know that's true, I went straight to NetFlix and ordered up the director's cut and moved it up the queue.

Gibson's an asshole, and my wife and I pretty much avoid him anymore, but he's done some great work, and this sounds like somethign he could do well. Especially now that we know his soul really is darker than was previously thought. Maybe he wasn't playing against type, after all.

Chris said...

This version is available on NetFlix as well.

jedidiah ayres said...

Payback Straight Up is even re-scored. It's a beaut.

Mike Dennis said...

I'll be looking for the director's cut. Thanks for alerting us to this, Jay.