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WHEN HES BAD, HES VERY

 
The rumor mill reported correctly that Mel Gibson and writer-director Brian Helgeland were unhappy with the final cut of Payback. Changes were made, none of which Helgeland had anything to do with. Roughly thirty percent of the movie was reshot, with the Kris Kristofferson character being added, under the direction of production designer John Myhre. (In other words, he traffic-managed.) Because Gibson engaged in a less than enthusiastic promotion, he probably did the most to hurt his box office. Who’d want to go see a movie you’re promoting when in fact you’re signalling to the audience you didn’t much like how it turned out originally and aren’t too confident hawking what you ended up with? (Costing around $50 million, it grossed $82 million.) But don’t let any supposed failures by Helgeland and the supposedly better fixes keep you away: if you’re like me, someone who is super sick of Gibson’s Three Stooges stuff, and finds him insufferably cutie pie in movie after movie, and thinks his quest for heroism in Bravefart leaves a putrid smell, and not altogether sure what to make of whatever it is he’s doing in Conspiracy Theory, then Payback (the first release, not the eventual director’s cut) is highly recommended. It’s a visual black and blue noir in which he plays a sociopath who in revenge mode takes no prisoners. He does the dirty with a style oozing with cigarette-discarding despisal; there’s an audience-loving wickedness in the way he gives Gregg Henry, John Glover, William Devane, David Paymer, James Coburn, Kristofferson and other enemies their comeuppance. From a pure entertainment perspective, the key ingredient in this reshoot is on smashing display—Gibson’s all too infrequent use of self-control. When playing bad he can be oh so very good. With Maria Bello and Trevor St. John (one of the Todds on “One Life to Live”). Lucy Lu shows up for some highly amusing Asian kicks.

The Brian Helgeland version entitled Payback: Straight Up—the Directors Cut isn’t too bad as a curiosity piece, which is its real asset. While there are glimpses of the black & blue noir look the later fix will be dominated by, this original looks rather ordinary in color, is pre-Oksana misogynistic, has an effectively sparse score and concludes ambiguously. After Mel goes through all that he has to get what he thinks he has coming, it’s disappointing that we’re left wondering if he’ll live to spend what we’re not too sure he has possession of. The editing at the train station suggests he doesn’t. The voice of Sally Kellerman is all wrong for the brutal genre, in this case a remake of Donald Westlake’s Point Blank. (Some of us who might have lost even our emergency reserves for Coburn and Kristofferson years ago don’t have much trouble enjoying what happens to them as Sally’s replacements.) The DVD has a lot of extra material that essentially gives Helgeland ample opportunity to explain what happened and what he did to restore his vision.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 7/2013) All Rights Reserved.