Written by : Brain Helgeland and Terry Hayes
Directed by : Brian Helgeland
Main Cast : Mel Gibson (Porter), Maria Bello (Rosie), Gregg Henry (Val), James Coburn (Fairfax), Kris Kristofferson (Bronson), Lucy Alexis Liu (Pearl)
Length : 102 min
Rating : ***
Official Web Site: www.paybackmovie.com
This Review Filed: March 2, 1999.
TIME FOR A CHEESY ACTION MOVIE
Ever ended up at home on a weekday, and switched on the television to find our local TV station giving us some really cheesy, low-budgeted action flick for a matinee?
I have. Sometimes they do that to late night TV too, telecasting some severely violent, poorly-scripted, pathetic action film, ripped right out of the 1970s (bellbottoms, shotguns, girls that look like Charlie's Angels, and Charles Bronson and all sorts of Deathwishes). It happens so often I get the impression that a whole decade of these movies exists, as though it is an important piece of popular culture that we don't notice enough. But we know all the tricks and patterns of these violent-take-life-too-seriously action films. It takes a movie like PAYBACK, which makes blatant use of all these cliches, to remind us of them, and how they make up a part of our cultural consciousness, whether we like it or not. PAYBACK gives us the chance to remember them fondly, and have a good laugh at how they took themselves so seriously.
Helgeland and Gibson give us such a 70s action flick, except it has higher production values, definitely has bigger stars, and also that it is deliberately parodying the movie fare that has become our afternoon matinee / late night TV staple. And that's cheesy, but it's also quite enjoyable and entertaining.
PAYBACK is a movie so obvious about its plot that I don't need to tell you much. Porter (Gibson) is left for dead by people who steal $70 000 from him. He doesn't die. He comes back to get the money and kill them off. He doesn't want anything less than his $70 000, and he doesn't want anything more. He could even resolve this action flick really early by accepting more money, but he doesn't. He just wants $70 000.
Everything about this movie screams to be taken with a dollop of salt. It isn't about treating the subject matter of revenge and violence (and the bit where they torture Porter is quite gruesome- but Mel's been disemboweled before : "if ya don't have freedum, it is all fer nuthin") particularly seriously. It isn't even about betrayal and the disturbing obsession Porter has with exactly $70 000. In fact, I think we shouldn't be even distracted by how Mel comes to us from a movie called RANSOM, and now it's PAYBACK, the monetary overtures are a joke on their own.
I think the key to enjoying PAYBACK is the way Helgeland parodies the cheesy 1970s Charles Bronson violent-DEATHWISH (all four installments!) pattern. There are really grim and overly macho voice-overs from Mel Gibson, sounding as if he's forcing the gravelly voice to mimic the grim reaper. It's almost laughable, but you're not sure at first. PAYBACK takes you for a ride, making you think you're supposed to take it seriously. Then it springs a surprise on you. The cheese starts to develop.
Lesser opinions suggest PAYBACK is about rooting for a bad guy like Porter. But that's silly. How could Mel Gibson, ever be a bad guy? When he is in a serious movie, he's a hero. When he's in a comedy, he's a hero. In a movie making light of the Bronson cliche, he's the hero.
Throw in really cheap and gaudy looking opening titles, and the mood is almost set. The stars, director and all the important film-makers in this movie have their names printed in ugly, cheap-looking red capitals. I found myself wondering : is this supposed to be bad, on purpose?
Yes. Helgeland has it all worked out. As Porter goes about on his mission, there's the so-called love affair between him and a hooker with a heart of gold, Rosie. When she finds he's been keeping a picture of her, it's so touching she decides not to walk out on him, but continue nursing the cut on his head. Check out her hair -- almost too often it feels really 70s. I can almost see Charlie's Angels twirling around. There's also a really deliberate score in the background, with guitar strings being plucked absent-mindedly, as if it's all the director could afford to get some soundtrack into the film. But the score is composed by Howard Shore, who's worked on SEVEN and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, so he doesn't come cheap. It's all on purpose. Not to mention the extremely obvious 70s and 60s blues playing in the soundtrack. There's Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown, all to evoke an era of such action movies÷ it's almost like a nostalgic homage, making the style that Helgeland is parodying so apparent that it has to be noticed.
Even the bad guys are ridiculously cheesy caricatures of the one-dimensional baddies in Charles Bronson films. James Coburn is your common, overly-filthy-rich Fairfax, who lives in such an ostentacious and opulent home, that it just begs to be recognised as a clich» being thrown at you. Bad guys in these films always seem to be too rich for their own good. And good guys are always the underdog being beaten nearly to death before they outwit their enemies (and the way Porter wins at the end of this movie has been planted so visibly, that we were always meant to realise the familiar patterns that PAYBACK follows).
And everyone seems to be having a good time too, even though they keep stern faces throughout the film, with serious and severe gazes and stiff upper lips. Everyone seems to be having such a good laugh at the parody, that sometimes it almost slips out. Porter kills a minor gang boss named Carter, and the latter strikes a pose (almost like John Travolta in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER) the moment he's shot. He even says his last words with a lemon slice in his mouth. It's amazingly hilarious. Even Coburn's character Fairfax gets in on the act. When Porter shoots his genuine alligator-skin suitcase, filled with his expensive suits (worth more than $70 000), Coburn says "that's mean! Why, that's just soooo mean!"
PAYBACK is a riot; it's fun. The moment it brings back the cheesy action flick for you, you know you're on the right track.
The Flying Inkpot's Rating System
* Wait for the TV2 broadcast.
** A little creaky, but still better than staying at home with Gotcha!
*** Pretty good, bring a friend.
**** Amazing, potent stuff.
***** Perfection. See it twice.
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