Film Review Hotline

THIS MONTH'S COVER FILM

Selected from the April 1999 Film Review

Mel Gibson under pressure in Payback
PAYBACK
4 Stars

Also from this issue: our review of PLEASANTVILLE – film of the month

STARS: Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, Deborah Kara Unger, David PaymerDIRECTOR: Brian HelgelandSCREENPLAY: Brian Helgeland
CERTIFICATE: 18DISTRIBUTOR and Picture copyright: Warner Bros
RUNNING TIME: 1hr 41minsOPENING DATE (UK): March 26

After the empty spectacle of Lethal Weapon 4, it’s good to report that Mel Gibson is back on solid ground with this ace feature directing début from Brian Helgeland, the LA Confidential scriptwriter. Based on the same material that provided superstar icon Lee Marvin and director John Boorman with their highly acclaimed 1967 critical success Point Blank (Donald E Westlake’s novel The Hunter written under his Richard Stark pseudonym), Helgeland keeps the same basic riveting story, gives Gibson one of his most subtly shaded complex roles and cranks up the violent action a few notches below fainting point.

Gibson plays Porter, a small-time crook, going after his ex-partner in crime Val Resnick (Henry) who shot him and left him for dead during a hold-up because he also needed his split to pay off debts to a Mafiosi type organization called ‘The Outfit’. Doubly aggravated because Val conned Porter’s drug-addicted wife Lynn (Unger, as brilliant as ever) into helping with the scam, he enlists the hesitant aid of an old flame, gorgeous call girl Rosie (Maria Bello), and slowly works his way up the corporate crime ladder to get the money owing to him.

Things get really messy when two bent cops want a slice of the cash for themselves and tail Porter throughout his vendetta. But Porter’s relentless pursuit of his rightful share finally puts him into contact with the three Outfit bosses (William Devane, Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn) and each tries to double-cross the other with explosive and stirring results.

While all the death and destruction on view might seem a little over the top for what amounts to the rather paltry sum of $70,000, the beauty of Helgeland’s high-octane thriller is that you never question it for a moment. It’s the principle that counts, not the amount, and no one is better at acting single-mindedly determined and driven as Gibson especially when he has a great script to get his teeth into as he does here. He’s only one of the interesting characters populating this cool-as-ice, pace-perfect, tightly controlled spring of lust, greed, murder, duplicity and betrayal. Gregg Henry is also remarkable as Val the smiling sadist and his edgy actions give Payback a very dark centre indeed. Especially those with nervy dominatrix Lucy Liu…

A strong stomach is required for some of the torture sequences you’re asked to endure, yet it’s all done with considerable flair and intelligence, not to mention lethal doses of nasty, sardonic humour. The snappy hard-boiled dialogue, the choice Chicago locations, the virtuoso camera techniques and the bleached-out look ensures Helgeland’s excursion into neon-shaded contemporary film noir fires on all the right entertainment cylinders. Pulp fiction rarely comes as well appointed or so far in your face.

Alan Jones

Payback photo copyright Warner Bros
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