The theatrical version of “Payback” came out in 1999, and while I enjoyed the movie, I wasn't completely satisfied. The film is loosely based on the Richard Stark book “The Hunter,” and loosely is the operative word. I'm a big fan of the book, and while the movie is a decent action/crime flick, it forsakes the noirish, amoral tone of the book in favor of a more audience-friendly, heroic story.
It turns out director Brian Helgeland did make a movie with the stark tone of the book, but Mel Gibson and the studio didn't think it would sell. Helgeland was fired, new writers were brought in, and an entirely new third act was shot, with the overall effect being a movie more like the Lethal Weapon movies, with explosions, one-liners, and a sympathetic hero.
In 2006, Brian Helgeland was given the opportunity to use the original footage of “Payback” to put together a director's cut, and man, is it awesome! Not only did Helgeland do away with the cheesy, blue film wash of the theatrical version, he stripped out all the lowest-common-denominator stuff that was put in to ensure that Porter, the protagonist, would be the kind of consistently sympathetic outlaw that audiences expected of Mel Gibson in 1999. What's fascinating is that Helgeland has put together, out of old footage, a movie that is perfect for modern-day, tarnished Mel Gibson. The drunk-driving, anti-semite, mug-shot, divorcee Gibson is finally free to play this character as Richard Stark wrote him, amoral and ruthless.
The story starts with Porter, in rumpled clothes, entering New York City on foot. Through a series of small rip-offs, he gets himself some cash, some clothes, and a weapon, and starts to hunt down the people who betrayed him. It turns out Porter is a heist artist. He plans and executes robberies. On his last job his partner and his wife double-crossed him, shooting him in the back and leaving him for dead. He sets out to even the score and get his money back, and not even the power of the Mob can stop him.
The attraction of Porter (known as Parker in the book series) is that in any given situation, he can be counted on to do what makes sense. Surrounded by sadistic sociopaths, druggies, and egomaniacs, he is always cool-headed and rational. A character like this has a pleasant, moderating effect on the plot of any story he appears in. He keeps the author or screenwriter honest. And yet, in order for there to be a story at all, we have to accept that in the big picture Porter may do something irrational when a principle is involved. Else why go up against the Mob for a mere $70,000?
Porter lives by a code. Someone betrays him; he gets even. Compromise isn't part of his DNA. Director Brian Helgeland apparently has a code as well. In 1999 he wasn't able to make the compromises that would please the movie studio, so in 2006 he was able to put together a crime movie of integrity, one that is destined to be a cult classic.
4.5 stars out of 5