Friday February 5, 1999
"Parker steals. Parker kills. It's a living." Or so claimed the paperback blurb copy for the series of drop-dead hard-boiled novels about a nerveless professional criminal that Donald Westlake wrote in the 1960s and '70s under the Richard Stark pseudonym.
With an amoral antihero who said, in a calmer moment, "I'm going to chew up his heart and spit it into the gutter," the Parker novels struck a nerve with filmmakers; even Jean-Luc Godard apparently made a version with Anna Karina as the Parker character. The most famous Parker adaptation, taken from "The Hunter," the first novel in the series, was the 1967 John Boorman-directed "Point Blank," starring Lee Marvin in a bravura performance as the relentless Walker, a man preternaturally determined to revenge himself on his betrayers and to recover a sum of money that was owed him.
Writer-director Brian Helgeland is also, apparently, a Parker fan, for his first film after his career-making co-writing job on "L.A. Confidential" is "Payback," taken fromthe same novel that "Point Blank" was based on and starring Mel Gibson as an amoral antihero named Porter who, yes, is bound and determined to get what's owed him no matter what.
To his credit, Helgeland was not intimidated by "Point Blank," a film many critics consider one of the high points of the decade. As "L.A. Confidential" proved, he understands the genre inside out, and in its opening segments, "Payback" has the makings of that rarest of ventures, an adaptation that is true to the spirit of the original as well as its own time and place.
But as "Payback" wends its way toward its conclusion, its promise dissipates and its pleasures wane. It's undone not so much by the shadow of Lee Marvin falling heavily on it (which it does) as by the twin obstacles of big star image and, more to the point, excessive violence. To be entertained by "Payback," you have to be willing to endure the agonizing beatings and torture it inflicts on its characters, and that is not a price worth paying.
"Payback" does manage to start auspiciously, with Porter, "a real Cro-Magnon-looking bastard," roaming the streets of the film's gray, washed-out world. He's looking first for Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), the wife who was disloyal, and then for Val (Gregg Henry), the partner who betrayed him, left him for dead and used his money to gain entry into the "outfit," the kind of crime organization that was called the "syndicate" once upon a time.
Though most of his career has been spent in conventional heroic roles, Gibson did play a revenge-minded individual in his Australian debut, "Mad Max." And in the early going, he does a convincing job as the lethal, implacable Porter--someone without a moral qualm in his body, an irresistible force you can't even imagine withstanding.
Helgeland's gift for nasty and sarcastic humor helps here as well, and, once we are in on the joke, it can be amusing to see the nominal hard guys Parker meets up with think they are tough enough to take him on. Parker can be momentarily outsmarted, but he can't be out-toughed, and his determination to wreak untold havoc just to get what's owed him never ceases to amaze his adversaries.
In the course of his quest, Porter runs into a crooked taxi operator (David Paymer); a crooked cop who wants in on his take (Bill Duke); a mistress of pain (Lucy Liu); and Rosie (Maria Bello of "ER" and "Permanent Midnight"), a call girl who, hey, just might have been the love of his life.
As Parker did in "The Hunter" and Walker did in "Point Blank," Porter also finds that the higher he gets in the outfit, the more it starts to resemble any major corporation, peopled by executives like Carter (William Devane) and Bronson (Kris Kristofferson), who are not used to his less than subtle methods.
But as Porter works his brutal way up the corporate ladder, the balance in "Payback" shifts and the film becomes less about humor and more about gut-clutching violence. It's interesting to compare this with "Point Blank," a movie that felt violent but used unconventional scenes, like Walker terrifying someone with a hair-raising car ride, to get across the same points that "Payback" can't manage without beating almost everyone on screen, plus the audience, to an unpleasant pulp. Times certainly have changed, and not at all for the best.
Also changed, apparently, is how Helgeland envisioned the movie. As has been reported in the media, reworking of the film was done by Terry Hayes, an Australian writer who shared screen credit with Helgeland and has worked with Gibson before.
What's likely, though unconfirmed, is that the star, despite the film's "Get ready to root for the bad guy" tag line, was uncertain about playing so much of an unapologetic savage and had both Porter's inhuman personality and how his story ends softened. Too bad he didn't think to soften some of the excessive violence while he was at it.
Payback, 1999. R, for strong violence, language, and drug and sexual content. An Icon Production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Brian Helgeland. Producer Bruce Davey. Executive producer Stephen McEveety. Screenplay by Brian Helgeland and Terry Hayes, based on the novel "The Hunter" by Richard Stark. Cinematographer Ericson Core. Editor Kevin Stitt. Costumes Ha Nguyen. Music Chris Boardman. Production design Richard Hoover. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Mel Gibson as Porter. Gregg Henry as Val. Maria Bello as Rosie. David Paymer as Stegman. Deborah Kara Unger as Lynn. William Devane as Carter. Bill Duke as Detective Hicks. Kris Kristofferson as Bronson. Lucy Liu as Pearl.