"Payback" is aptly named, because that's precisely what audiences should demand if they have the unfortunate luck to see it.
A smug, derivative attempt at being hip, this re-casting of John Boorman's 1967 movie "Point Blank" (a trippy adaptation of Richard Stark's novel "The Hunter") seems to have been made chiefly to set the world record for most punches landed in an hour and 40 minutes. Director Brian Helgeland ensures the title by introducing a dominatrix and a prize fight into the action.
Mel Gibson plays a guy named Porter, whom we meet while he's having two bullets taken out of his back. This grisly opening scene sets the visual and emotional tone of "Payback," which plays its one note -- sadistic violence and a stylized "gritty" look -- incessantly, if not entertainingly. Once Porter recovers, he goes after the people who left him for dead and, by the way, stole $70,000 from him.
"Payback" follows Porter's grimy journey to getting his due, a trip during which he crosses paths with a vicious organized crime unit, corrupt cops, a beautiful heroin addict and, oh yes, a couple of hookers. Surprisingly, one even has a heart of gold.
Helgeland, a pulp-churning screenwriter best known for the vastly overrated "L.A. Confidential," has filmed "Payback" in a bruise-colored palette, and everyone -- even Gibson -- winds up looking like a fleshy, badly dressed corpse.
Taking his cue from Tarantino and the Elmore Leonard canon, Helgeland tries to sell this warmed-over pastiche of '70s references (Nixon, wah-wah pedals, wide lapels) with a hip soundtrack, dominated by Stax-Volt sounds and James Brown, and a supporting cast of cool cats like William Devane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson. But no amount of visual style or pop-cultural winks can distract from the fact that "Payback" is less a movie than an excuse for Gibson to chain-smoke and grimace a lot.
What's Gibson trying to do? What with "Braveheart" and even "Mad Max," he had all the makings of a terrific leading man, not only a good hero but a reasonably appealing anti-hero. But then he does yet one more sequel of "Lethal Weapon," screams his way through "Ransom," mumbles his way through "Conspiracy Theory" (also directed by Helgeland) and now stoops even lower. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Mel's inner idiot.
Far more troubling than Gibson's erratic taste is why he and Helgeland have chosen to make such a retrograde, ugly and crass movie (Gibson also produced "Payback").
Ugly like the movie's opening scene, in which a slovenly doctor stubs out a cigar, takes a swig of liquor, sterilizes his equipment in it and proceeds to dig the ordnance out of Porter's back. Behind him is a medical chart showing the stages of human gestation.
What's creepy about "Payback," aside from its feeble attempt to cash in on the current rage for mano-a-mano combat and double-handed gunplay, is Gibson and Helgeland's palpable nostalgia for a time when men ate their steaks rare, slapped women around and controlled the means of reproduction.
A plague on their houses, as decrepit as they are.
Starring Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, David Paymer, Deborah Kara Unger
Directed by Brian Helgeland
Released by Paramount Pictures
Rated R (strong violence, language and drug and sexual content)
Running time: 102 minutes
Sun score: *
Pub Date: 2/05/99