Sunday 4 December 2016

Movie Review: Payback (1999)

A tongue-in-cheek neo-noir film with a throwback 1970s edge, Payback is a rollicking fun time, filled with sharp dialogue, a smooth anti-hero and jarring violence.

A career criminal known only as Porter (Mel Gibson) has been double crossed, shot and left for dead. With his wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) and partner in crime Val Resnick (Gregg Henry), Porter had just stolen $140,000 from a Chinese gang. But Lynn and Val conspire to relieve Porter of his $70,000 share, with Lynn shooting Porter in the back for good measure, upset that he was having an affair with call girl Rosie (Maria Bello). Val uses most of the money to buy his way back into a powerful criminal organization known as The Outfit, run by Carter (William Devane) and Fairfax (an uncredited James Coburn).

Porter recovers and sets about plotting his revenge with violent methods, demanding the return of his $70,000. Lynn overdoses on heroin, and Porter tracks down Val through drug dealer Stegman (David Paymer). But his exploits attract a crowd, and soon the Chinese gang, including S+M dominatrix Pearl (Lucy Liu) are on his tail, as well as two crooked cops. The closer Porter gets to Val, the more he tangles with the leadership of The Outfit, all the way up to kingpin Bronson (Kris Kristofferson).

Porter, narrating: Crooked cops. Do they come in any other way? If I'd been just a little dumber, I could have joined the force myself.

Directed and co-written by Brian Helgeland, Payback is a gritty, aggressive thriller. With a bad-guy hero carrying a kick-ass, dead-already attitude and Mel Gibson at his absolute cool peak, the film oozes danger with extreme prejudice. The story understandably stretches Porter's capabilities beyond rationality, but otherwise the mix of sardonic humour, punchy action and unconstrained ballsiness among bad guys and worse guys is triumphant.

Carter: There's an old expression that's served me well: "Do not shit where you eat."

A big part of the film's appeal is the investment made in Porter as a character. He is humanized both in his sense of honour among thieves, and through his relationship with Rosie, two flawed sinners drifting sideways until they meet each other. The oily Val Resnick is also provided with plenty of latitude to come to life as the antithesis of Porter, a criminal without scruples just looking for his version of the good life.

Carter, to Resnick: Do you understand your value to the organization, Resnick?...You're a sadist. You lack compunction. That comes in handy.

The everything-including-the-kitchen-sink elements work surprisingly well. Lucy Liu has a blast as the dominatrix turned on by violence; her depraved arousal in bed next to Resnick as he is being threatened by Porter summarizes the film's unconstrained wickedness, culminating in Porter's classic let her work quip. The gun-toting Chinese gang, the crooked cops, and the ever mounting layers of sleaze up the ladder of The Outfit all add to Payback's enjoyable insanity. Veterans William Devane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson glide in with mounting levels of evil smarminess.

Pearl, seductively: I've got a few minutes.
Porter: So go boil an egg.

The film's colour palette is a mixture of bleached greys, blacks and browns, appropriate for an underworld rife with backstabbing. Payback goes into the sordid corners of criminality, and lands on a pile of misanthropic revelry.

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