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WHEN BAD, HES VERY GOOD

 
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 (some say more) of the movie was reshot, 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 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 the purported failures the first time around keep you away: if you’re like me, someone super sick of Gibson’s Three Stooges stuff, finds him insufferably cutie pie in movie after movie, 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 and the other bummers, then this Payback is highly recommended. It’s a visceral bruiser—a black and blue noir—in which he plays a near-sociopath in revenge mode taking 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 audience-intolerants Gregg Henry, John Glover, William Devane, David Paymer, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson their comeuppance. When playing bad for humanity, Gibson can be oh so very good. Payback is probably the greatest rescue in modern Hollywood history. 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, its real asset. While there are glimpses of the black & blue tint the later fix will be dominated by, this original looks majorly ordinary in color, is pre-Oksana misogynistic, has an effectively sparse score and concludes ambiguously. After Gibson 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 of the train station sequence suggests he doesn’t. The voice of Sally Kellerman is all wrong for the genre’s brutality, in this case a remake of Donald Westlake’s Point Blank. The DVD has a lot of extra material that gives Helgeland ample opportunity to explain what happened and what he tried to do to restore his vision. (It’s still missing.) He’d do much better with both imagery and directing in 2015’s Legend, about the infamous twins Ron and Reggie Kray, for whom Tom Hardy delivers the best set since Jeremy Irons’s Beverly and Elliot Mantle in 1988’s Dead Ringers.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 8/2018) All Rights Reserved.