Judge Joel Pearce had three monkeys on his back while he wrote this review.
Our reviews of Payback (published August 7th, 1999), Payback (2011) (published September 1st, 2012), Payback: Straight Up (Blu-ray) (published April 10th, 2007), and Payback: Straight Up (HD DVD) (published April 23rd, 2007) are also available.
He's back with a vengeance.
The theatrical cut of Payback was released in 1999 to mixed reviews. As with many studio films, control was taken from director Brian Helgeland towards the end of production, and star Mel Gibson (who also owns Icon, the production company) made adjustments himself. It was a risky film, one with no real hero and some tough violence. It felt like a classic noir at times, but it was also ahead of its time—Payback feels a lot more tame after some of the other ultraviolent crime thrillers we've seen in the past few years. Now, Helgeland has released his own version to DVD, and we get the rare opportunity to find out how things might have been.
The story sees few major changes. Porter (Mel Gibson, Lethal Weapon) is shot and left for dead by his partner Val (Gregg Henry, Slither) and his wife (Deborah Kara Unger, Silent Hill). When Porter resurfaces a few months later, he's out for revenge and the $70,000 dollars that Val stole from him. It turns out that Val used the money to join "The Outfit," a major crime syndicate. Porter must penetrate the organization's inner sanctum in order to get what he wants. His only ally is Rosie (Maria Bello, A History of Violence), the prostitute he used to drive for. Porter has a hell of a fight in front of him, but he wants that money back really, really badly.
No matter what else is be said about it, Payback had a very troubled production. Director Brian Helgeland (fresh from his writing credit on L.A. Confidential) wrote a tough, nasty script and did his darndest to film it according to his vision. It was Mel Gibson's nastiest role since Mad Max. The film was much darker than the other action movies at the time. Of course, when the execs at Paramount and Icon got a look at the footage, they realized they had a monster on their hands. Mel Gibson agreed with some of the studio concerns, so he took the reigns. Helgeland was removed from the project, some re-shoots took place, and the theatrical version of Payback was born.
Although there doesn't seem to be bad blood between Helgeland and the studios, he was never happy with the outcome. So, he spent the past year with the original footage. He restored his original ending, cleaned up the beginning of the film, and restored several sequences that were lost in the theatrical version. The result is a picture that is different, but not as much as I had expected. I'd also consider it no better or worse than the theatrical version.
For fans of the original, it's worth giving a quick overview of the changes here. This section is full of spoilers, so watch out. Helgeland started the film without explaining why Porter was so pissed off at everyone, which makes it harder to connect to his character at first. Going back, Helgeland realized that he needed to include something, but it's still far less fleshed out than in the theatrical version. Helgeland also included several tougher scenes: When Porter fights with his wife, the dog is killed. Not surprisingly, the biggest changes are in the final act, which was completely re-filmed. Ironically, Gibson's version of the finale is far tougher and more graphic. Helgeland's shows the same ironic, creative flair that he brought to his L.A. Confidential script.
The most important thing is that Helgelands cut of Payback remains a pretty solid film. Mel Gibson plays a great tough guy, and this is Mel at his scene-chewing, cold-staring, thug-smashing best. He brings a fascinating moral center to the film, as a career criminal willing to commit countless atrocities to get his money back. We watch as Porter uses violence, pain, and cruelty to accomplish his goals, but then refuses to steal the money back. He wants the Outfit to return his money by choice, and he'll do whatever it takes. It takes us a few minutes to adjust to this moral system, but it ultimately does work. Porter's dogged commitment to his moral code keeps us from hating him too much as he is pitted against the truly amoral members of the Outfit.
Helgeland gives his version a different look and feel, too. He had to return to the original film elements to create this director's cut, and he didn't end up with the same steel-blue look that produced for the theatrical version. He uses a wider range of digital filters, and while they don't always look as cold and edgy, they add a bit of warmth and humanity to the proceedings. The soundtrack has changed as well, maintaining the overall feel of the original score, but removing the ironic, humorous songs that softened the original's grittier moments.
The DVD is also solid this time around. The original Payback DVD was one of Paramount's first forays into anamorphic widescreen, and still looks quite good. This version looks slightly sharper, though I did notice a number of compression errors throughout. The sound is well-mastered, and the new score fits in seamlessly. The main extra is a set of interviews discussing the development of the director's cut. The interviews are insightful. They include interviews with Mel Gibson, who explains his own side of the story, giving us a perspective on why things played out the way they did. There's also a commentary track, a pair of location featurettes, and an interview with Donald E. Westlake, the author of the book that was adapted to make Payback in the first place. It's an impressive lineup of features.
Realistically, the director's cut of Payback will only appeal to fans of the original. Those who hated it in 1999 won't find themselves delighted by this version since only the end has changed significantly. Fans of the original will want to make sure they get a hold of this alternate version. Film buffs often complain about not getting the chance to see the films that could have been: Fincher's cut of Alien 3, Michael Crichton's cut of The 13th Warrior…this is one of the rare instances that we get a chance to see a true director's cut. Once again, I'm not prepared to say here which version is better. There are aspects of both that I like, and I'm glad I've had the chance to compare the two side by side.
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