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Payback - Straight Up

Review by: 
A.J. MacReady
Release Date: 
Crime Drama
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Brian Helgeland
Mel Gibson
Maria Bello
Greg Henry
William Devane
James Coburn
Bottom Line: 

 Brian Helgeland's 1999 crime thriller Payback always seemed rather underrated to me.  Sure, I know quite a few people who dig it, but you don't really hear much about it these days.  I guess it came out, did fairly decently with audiences and critics, and then more or less faded away into B-movie obscurity.  I always had a great appreciation for it, however - it's not often you see such an unrepentant badass as Porter, or played with such casual (almost nonchalant) brutality as Mel Gibson did. 
Quickly, here's a very simple plot summary:  career criminal Porter pulls off a heist with his partner Val Resnick (the unstoppable Gregg Henry) and wife (Deborah Kara Unger), who then promptly shoot him in the back - literally - and leave him for dead.  He recovers, returns to the streets, and starts raising holy hell, all in the name of getting what's rightfully his; namely, $70,000.  No more, no less.  He drifts back into the orbit of a call girl he used to protect (Maria Bello), a couple dirty cops, a sleazy bookie, and one hell of a dominatrix as he goes about his mission.  And that's pretty much it.
Well, smack my ass and call me Gumby, cause it turns out that the flick that was released?  Not exactly the movie that writer/director Helgeland made.  He'd just co-written L.A. Confidential with Curtis Hanson and people were beginning to realize just what a classic that film was destined to be.  Paramount signed him up quick to film his script, based on the book by Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), The Hunter, as his directorial debut.  Helgeland was more than happy to oblige, and got Gibson, based on the strength of his screenplay and vision for the movie, to come aboard.  He shot it, and thought all there was now was for the studio to put it out there.
Not exactly.
Seems they didn't exactly like. . .well, the darkness of the story.  Too violent.  Porter was too harsh in his methods and motivations for any self-respecting audience with morals to enjoy as a protagonist.  They told Helgeland that there would have to be changes made, certain scenes toned down, and that the ending flat out didn't work and would need to be completely retooled.  Helgeland stood back, and realized that there really was nothing he could do.  More than that, there was nothing he could fix; he didn't know how to give them what they wanted.  He wished them well and they hired veteran screenwriter Terry Hayes (The Road Warrior) to re-tool the script, and some unnamed director to film the new scenes. 
Just like the studio wanted, the film was toned down (somewhat) in terms of feel, yet the absolute worst scene in the flick, in terms of violence?  Was ADDED into the flick (remember Gibson's line, "this little piggy. . .").  Sometimes Hollywood just doesn't make any friggin' sense.  They bleach bypassed the film and processed the look into a blued and washed out visual scheme, which looked cool enough, I suppose.  Added a voice-over (shades of Blade Runner there), and made the big boss, Bronson, an actual onscreen character played by Kris Kristofferson, and did in fact change the entire last third or so of the flick.
Well, Helgeland somehow got lucky enough to restore his cut for this DVD release, titled Payback (Straight Up: The Director's Cut).  Everything I mentioned above has gone by the wayside, and there are even a few new touches just for this release, like a brand new score (by Scott Stambler), added in.  The new look is brighter, yet seems to showcase the gritty, hard-light look by DP Ericson Core even better than the original did, as it's more reminiscent of the 70's crime dramas this flick pays such great homage to.
The original ending is back, simpler and to the point than the theatrical cut.  It also seems truer to Porter's character in that he gets in there, does what he does, and tries his best to get out without losing too much blood in the process.  It's awesome; in fact, I have to admit, even though I was a big fan of the original version, I've come to like this cut better (not by a huge margin, but enough).  Seeing little things like Porter's first reunion with his deceptive wife, some new scenes with Val, and even the music add to the feel of a coherent piece, similar (of course) to the original cut, yet one that can stand on its own.
There's a great set of special features that come with the flick, which looks phenomenal in 2.35:1 and rocking a great Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.  There's a fantastic doc, "Same Story, Different Movie - Creating Payback: The Director's Cut" that interviews all the principals, including Helgeland and Gibson, and covers all aspects of how this new cut came to be.  No one seems to have any ill will towards anyone else - no axes to grind here - and Helgeland seems appropriately thrilled to have gotten the opportunity to showcase his original vision for the flick.  His commentary doesn't retell any of the same stories, and is low key but insightful and definitely a worthwhile listen.  There's also two featurettes about shooting on location in both Chicago and L.A., and they do an excellent job of providing a more traditional behind the scenes look at the filming of the movie.  There's especially some great stuff about how one of my favorite directors, Richard Donner (ease up, the dude's made some asskicking entertainments), mentored Helgeland through a mix of tough love and good advice.  A short interview with crime writing legend Donald E. Westlake completes an excellent set - much props to Paramount for coming through with a winner when they didn't even have to put the director's cut out at all, much less with this much care and thought for the fans.
Overall, this new cut is a tribute to Helgeland's skill and Gibson's star power in the service of a terrific, hardboiled noir tale.  If you dug the original, you owe it to yourself to take a second look and give this different take on the same material a fighting chance.  Odds are, it won't let you down.

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