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USA 1999
Directed by
Brian Helgeland
100 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars


There must have been something in the air as while Brian Helgeland was putting together Payback, Guy Ritchie in the UK was turning heads with Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.  Both are laddishly smart black crime comedies with shed loads of violence and wise ass banter though co-writer-director Helgeland’s film is outstripped by Ritchie’s when it comes to originality and verve. For a feature debut (he was best known at the time as the writer of the much admired 1997 neo-noir L.A. Confidential it is however largely an impressive effort.

The film is a re-make of John Boorman's classic 1967 revenge movie, Point Blank  (1967) with both films being based on a novel, 'The  Hunter', by Donald E. Westlake (writing under the name "Richard Stark") which tells the story of Porter (Mel Gibson), a career criminal who is out to retrieve the money stolen from him by his former partner (Gregg Henry) and his junkie wife (Deborah Kara Unger). The pursuit leads him to a criminal combine known as The Outfit whose bosses (William Devane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson) refuse to pay back the money, a decision that will cost them more than they could ever imagine.  

Helgeland keeps some of the plot points and adds others notably Lucy Liu’s Asian dominatrix but jettisons pretty much everything else in Boorman’s film. Most apparent in the change of sensibility is the look of the film. Cinematographer Ericson Core shoots it with a predominantly desaturated blue-grey palette whilst production designer Richard Hoover and art director Troy Sizemore create a bleak setting whose gloomy seediness at times suggests Gotham City and is fully in synch with Gibson’s lugubriously fatalistic voice-over.

Whilst the film is impressively well-crafted the 1990s' appetite for stylistic gloss takes away from the thrilling pared-down rigour of Boorman’s film whilst Gibson’s wisecracking persona doesn’t have anything to replace Lee Marvin’s Walker’s unwavering sense of justice.  Also problematic is that the “enhanced” plot becomes less tenable as the film goes on with Porter’s ability to take beating after beating yet surviving to save the day approaches the miraculous.

Whilst in itself having plenty of genre savoir faire as a remake Payback isn’t a patch on the original.

FYI: According to Boorman the original script which he and Marvin threw out was similar to Helgeland's.




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