Judge Dennis Prince often wonders if his judgments presented in this forum will be altered and angled in ways he never originally intended.
Our reviews of Payback (published August 7th, 1999), Payback (2011) (published September 1st, 2012), Payback: Straight Up (published April 10th, 2007), and Payback: Straight Up (HD DVD) (published April 23rd, 2007) are also available.
They thought they had killed him…
The interesting thing about this Lethal Weapon-era crime outing is not it's dark tone nor its morose characterizations but, rather, it's the fact that it's being revisited eight years later to bury some sort of hatchet, so it seems. This is a true "director's cut," presented not in some unnecessary and money-grubbing fashion but as an actual representation of a vastly different vision that was intended. If you recall back to 1999, you may remember how steeped this particular Mel Gibson feature was mired in studio controversy that put a first-time director between the proverbial rock and hard place, that is, between a celebrated action star and a sponsoring studio that wanted more of Marty Riggs, not this depressing criminal who only wants his share of a heist. Oh, there's revenge to be exacted, too, and this special edition of Payback—Straight Up: the Director's Cut, presented in high definition, lets you in on who has harsh restitution on their mind, both in front of as well as behind the camera.
Facts of the Case
Porter (Mel Gibson, Conspiracy Theory) has been betrayed by his partner Val (Gregg Henry, The Black Dahlia) and his own wife, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger, Silent Hill), she who shot him in the back and ran off with his share of a heist. Val needed the money—all of it—to buy his way back into the local syndicate, unwilling to spare Porter his $70,000 cut of the take. But Porter survived the assault and is now back in town to track down Val and Lynn, and get his $70,000. He doesn't want more than he ever deserved, but he does insist on payback.
In this time of double and triple-dip DVD releases, film enthusiasts have become appropriately weary of studio antics, they who intentionally offer the lazy porting over of a theatrical release with full intentions of issuing extended and expanded versions within the coming three to six months. Often times, these "improved" editions are merely trumped up offerings that provide a few extras scenes and a couple of additional bonus items, triumphantly billed as "director approved" or as a "director's cut." If you've had your finger on the DVD pulse of late, you'll know these reissues are largely a ruse to squeeze out a repeat sale or to promote a relevant new theatrical release (see Spider-Man 2.1 that coincidentally precedes the imminent Spider-Man 3). But, here, we get a true Director's Cut that delivers the filmmaker's original vision, different that what a studio wanted to market upon initial release. In the same vein as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner: The Director's Cut, here is Brian Helgeland's original conception for this story, adapted from Richard Stark's (aka Donald Westlake) 1962 pulp crime-thriller that introduced a series of titles revolving around the character of "Parker," a ruthless thug that goes after what he wants and sheds no tears for those who get in his way—no tears for nobody. And, if you think you already know the plot and underpinnings of this film based upon the theatrical cut, you'd be mistaken, friend. This re-cut version is a very different picture driven by a very different tone, both thematically as well as visually.
The original character of Parker was harsh, unyielding, and unaffected by the pain he inflicted upon others. He was a thief, usually after money, that rarely let anyone or anything get between him and his take. The book was first adapted for the screen in 1967, with Lee Marvin playing the role of "Walker" in John Boorman's Point Blank. It takes another three decades before hopeful screenwriter Helgeland would parlay his associations with Richard Donner and Mel Gibson to promote his next work, Payback. Gibson read the first act—all that Helgeland had written when Gibson noticed it tucked under the writer's arm—and indicated his interest, even offering to grant Helgeland's wish to direct the picture. But the film that Helgeland shot in Chicago and Los Angeles bore too much of character Parker's (renamed Porter here) sadistic and soulless nature, not a Hollywood-friendly approach that could leverage from Gibson's recent spectacular yet sometimes silly buddy-cop adventures. Paramount asked for cuts and reworking of the script to which Helgeland could not comply. He left the picture and Gibson worked with stand-in director John Myhre to complete re-shoots and effect a more tongue-in-cheek tone to the modern day noir (complete with Gibson's voice over narrative). The film, released in the film-unfriendly month of February (1999), barely got noticed—outside of the directorial controversy, anyway.
This new issue, though, allows us a rare opportunity to see how differently a film can play even though it uses the majority of the same content. This time, though, the voice over is gone, the softening quips are excised, and even the score has been replaced. Kris Kristofferson's characterization of Outfit leader Bronson is gone, restoring Sally Kellerman's voice only, heard over speakerphone. The film's look is also significantly different, the bleach bypass process discarded, resulting in a new look that's not a noir-suggestive steel blue but, rather, more dynamic in its colors yet contrasted sharply to maintain a gritty and glaring edginess. And, the ending is different, too. To watch the two films, one after another, is to watch two different films. This, then, is the value of this release, a true "director's cut," the sort of presentation that film enthusiasts had originally expected from the potential of the digital home entertainment media.
But is this new version any good? Plainly, that is not the point of this release (and this review), to strenuously compare the two versions side by side. As previously noted, they're two different films and will likely attract two different audiences, presumably eliciting sentiments for and against either incarnation. That's fine. The importance of this release is that it allows the director to tell his version of the story, literally, and it goes beyond this to also tell us all the story-about-the-story particulars. In an unexpected return to the days when alternate cuts and extended versions on DVD really made a difference, this version of Payback reminds us of the value and potential of the media while also jarring us back into wakefulness over what makes a "special edition" special.
Of course, it's important to touch upon the high-definition impact to Payback—Straight Up: the Director's Cut in this Blu-ray offering. As previously mentioned, the color palette in this cut is quite different from the theatrical version and those differences visible differences should not be misconstrued as being affected by the transfer here. The 1080p / MPEG-2 encode provides a very clear and crisp look at Porter's landscape, from the gritty Chicago locales, to the ornate interiors of The Outfit's lair. Details are exquisite, plenty of skin textures popping and street-level shots offering good dimensionality. There is a graininess, intentionally, and that is present here, too. The audio, unfortunately, is less than expected. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is almost exclusively front-anchored, only a few ambient effects slipping out of the rear channels. The low end feels clipped, the various gunshots lacking fullness. The all-important dialog is clear and intelligible, and that is appreciated, but this may as well have been presented in a 2.0 Stereo mix, for what it's worth.
As for extras, this disc exceeds expectations in that it contains the full complement of bonus goods found on the concurrently available Standard Definition DVD disc (an expectation we should all maintain yet one that often is disregarded in a studio's deference to the high-definition hype alone). This is a complete offering, then, in which you'll delve deep into the world of Helgeland's Payback beginning with an audio commentary by the director in which he explains his vision and the differences between what we're seeing in this version as compared to the previous theatrical release. He's very talkative, thorough, and appropriately respectful of Paramount and Gibson for their involvement in with the release of this version. Next up is the engaging Same Story, Different Movie: Creating Payback: the Director's Cut. In this 30-minute piece, interviews with Helgeland, Gibson, and Film Editor Kevin Stitt are inter-cut to explain the difficulties with the original vision, the impact of the changes to the theatrical release, and the work done to present this director's cut. The conversation is refreshingly candid yet contained, none interviewed seeming as if they bear any grudges. On the contrary, all seem quite pleased to have this opportunity to present the original version on this disc. The behind-the-scenes material arrives in a pair of featurettes, Paybacks Are a Bitch: On Location in Chicago (28 minutes) and Paybacks Are a Bitch: On Location in Los Angeles (19 minutes). Both featurettes combine to give us an unfettered view of the cast and crew at work on what would become an beleaguered endeavor, in distribution anyway. Running too short, at just 10 minutes, is a brief interview with Author Donald E. Westlake in which he quickly explores the flavor of noir and how tone and temper can properly drive a crime thriller despite the protests of a studio that might prefer a more "accessible" outing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What's most compelling about the story behind Helgeland's original vision is the fact that, just eight years prior, his view was deemed too dark, unrelenting, and unrepentant. Paramount and Gibson's own Icon Pictures were still in the mindset of Lethal Weapon and its ilk, afraid to present a harsh character like Helgeland's Porter/Parker. Today, however, such a cynical and sinister approach is what sells movie tickets and gets rampantly downloaded for computer wallpapers and icon maps. In this manner, it's clear that the novice director was ahead of his time and for that we're doubly thankful that all involved, including Paramount and Gibson, have enabled this re-cut to emerge.
Perhaps the best thing about this new release, besides its deftness in presenting Helgeland's original intent, is that it is free of distracting acrimony, the sort that could hamstring another such effort where the infighting overpowers the "supposed" purpose. No, this disc comes free of back-biting, name-calling, and even payback. Instead, viewers are treated to the real goings-on in Hollywood, where visions differ, expectations suffer, and just another "movie" is made. This release comes highly recommended, then, as an example of how home video products can improve viewers' knowledge and perspective of the filmmaking processes, and can help an embattled director share what he originally had in mind.
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• Audio commentary by Brian Helgeland
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