Paramount // 2007 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // April 23rd, 2007
He's back with a vengeance.
So apparently the story behind Payback is that director Brian Helgeland (The Order), who also adapted Donald Westlake's novel, was keeping the roots of the film firming in the noir settings. Both the studio and the star of the film (Mel Gibson, Lethal Weapon) booted Helgeland from the finishing of the film and included some reshoots. And Paramount's put this out on all three platforms (SD, HD DVD and Blu-ray), is it worth it?
Gibson plays Porter, a man who takes money from some Asian gangsters with the help of his partner Val (Gregg Henry, United 93). Val double crosses him, not to mention that Porter's wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger, Silent Hill) was the one who pulled the trigger. Porter returns, presumably from the dead, to get the money that's owed to him, and doesn't care who he meets and what he has to go through to get it.
In the interest of full disclosure, I've not seen the theatrical version of Payback, and I wasn't aware of any public clamoring for the unseen cut of what was Helgeland's initial film as a director. So what exactly makes him the next Ridley Scott or Richard Donner? As far as I can tell, not all that much.
What's the saying about when protagonists have a "kiss the dog" scene in a film and the antagonists have a "kick the dog" scene? Payback seems to have neither. Now, to Helgeland's credit, he does try to get this across, but I think that as a viewer, a lot of us expected to see Gibson do something benevolent in the film, didn't we? As Porter, Gibson plays a guy blindly trying to get the money back that is owed to him. Sure, in his blind quest to get a paltry amount of money, he forgets about some of the love given to him by Rosie (Maria Bello, World Trade Center). That's probably the closest that he comes to any sort of appeal. And you can't tell me that characters in a dark or noir film can't have some form of charisma, be it good or bad.
Technically, the 1080p MPEG-4 encoded transfer is OK, though it just doesn't do it for me. The bluish tint in the theatrical cut has been shunned to get back to basics, making it more of a black and white contrast during the film. It's not the best HD DVD I've seen, but it'll do. The audio is a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 soundtrack, and most of it comes through the front and is pretty weak overall. But I guess there wasn't an urge to get back to the sound elements and remaster it, so no large party foul on this. As should always be standard issue with the director's cut, the director provides commentary for the film. Helgeland discusses the charade of adjusting a film based on test screening, and does a good job of illustrating the differences between his cut and the film one. He was certainly candid in discussing his dismissal from the project (which was two days after winning the Best Screenplay Oscar for L.A. Confidential), recalls how Bello was brought on for the part, and it's a nice look at the memories of a jilted auteur. After that are a couple of featurettes on the film that feature recollections by Helgeland and his advocate at the time, director Richard Donner (so that's why there's a director's cut of the film on DVD!). But it's also got recent interviews with Gibson, Unger and others. The restoration of the film is covered by Helgeland in another featurette of the film, and Westlake comes on board to share his thoughts on his work.
The casting choices for those who work with Gibson are certainly inspired ones. James Coburn and William Devane (Space Cowboys) are long established dramatic forces, and I love seeing Bill Duke in just about anything. It certainly makes up for the choice of Lucy Liu as a dominatrix hitperson, or whatever she's supposed to be.
If anything, the fact that Icon Pictures and Paramount decided to wait on this so that Lethal Weapon 4 could be made says something either about this film or the final piece of the Riggs-Murtaugh quadrilogy that had to be completed. That's all I really have to say about that. For me, the story was pretty bland, the characters' darkness was too deadpanned, and I was left was a pretty empty film experience after 90 minutes.
Not guilty, as the restoration of the director's vision of the film is always a good thing, even if the film itself is unpleasing in either version.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Chicago Shooting Featurette
* L.A. Shooting Featurette
* Production Featurette
* Author Interview
* Original DVD Verdict Review: Theatrical Cut
* Original Verdict Review: Director's Cut
* Original Verdict Review: Blu-ray Director's Cut