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Payback (1999)

Directed by Brian Helgeland


Long-in-the-tooth action star, Mel Gibson, takes a stab (no pun intended) at "A Clockwork Orange" type of character in this latest offering of what passes as an action film these days. Are you ready for a little bit of the old ultra-violence? Then you're in the right place. Where "A Clockwork Orange" did have a point (or at least a question) about free will and responsibility, "Payback" is mindless exploitation but forgets that fact in mid-film. Towards the end of the movie, the audience is asked to root for bad-guy Mel despite the fact that he's one fucked-up nut with no redeeming virtues (I'm talking about the character he plays, not Mr. Gibson). He's only likable in comparison to the sadistic, toe-crushing enemies he's up against (now, I am talking about Mel and his adventures in Hollywoodland).

A riff-off of the 60's "neo-noir" classic "Point Blank" (pun totally intended), "Payback" follows double-crossed Mel as he goes after an elusive $70,000 that he helped steal from a gang in Chinatown (the geography of this film is a little hard to pin down -- some scenes seem to take place in New York City and others in Chicago). Though, "Payback" has little resemblance to "Point Blank" it's hard not to compare them. Lee Marvin's Walker, in "Point Blank," is a man pathologically driven to get "his" money. The money, in itself, is of little importance. The woman he loved and a trusted friend have betrayed him and his pursuit of the cash seems to be a last grab at meaning in a meaningless existence. To give up on the money would be to give up on life. Maybe... it's hard to tell. He's inscrutable and Lee Marvin face is often an expressionless mask. Because of this, "Point Blank" takes on the feel of a living nightmare. You wouldn't want to meet Walker, yet he has a certain amount of pathos about him. In comparison, Mel Gibson comes across as simply smug and ruthless which would be fine if we (the audience) weren't asked to pull for him to waltz away with the blood money and his prostitute/love interest before the credits roll, as if that makes all the killing okay.

However, "Payback" does have some entertaining elements. It's best over-the-top character is a Chinese dominatrix who is shacking up with a sadistic criminal who just happens to be the same guy that stole Mel's money and wife. When Mel busts in on the couple in bed, she just can't resist tweaking her sadomasochistic lover's nipples in anticipation of the blood letting. Besides that, she can really take a punch (in the "real" world, she would look more like Hedda Nussbaum than Michele Yeoh) but she does dish it out as well as take it.


Another over-the-top character is Johnny, the privileged son of Kris Kristofferson. Kris is the head of a shadowy organized crime group known as "The Outfit." Johnny and his ball-less friends are so goofy that they seem to be living in a Mentos commercial instead of an ultra-violent 90's actioner -- pretty funny or annoying depending on what your expectations are of a genre that has completely run out of gas. What was the last really good action film that you saw, anyway? If you answer "Die Hard" then you're an action fan and if you answer "Rush Hour" then you just want to get out of the house. "Payback" is for those who just want to get out of the house. -- Rating: $3.16

Tom Graney -- 1999 Hollywood Outsider

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