If ever you need to understand the depths of studio fuckery, look no further than 1999’s Payback. Written and helmed by first-time director Brian Helgeland (whose previous credits included the script for the divine L.A. Confidential), it was a dark, gritty revenge tale that featured a surprisingly grim turn by Mel Gibson in the main role of Porter. Based on excellent the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, who would later see MGM destroy his excellent caper novel What’s The Worst That Could Happen by casting — wait for it — Martin Lawrence as the lead), Payback is about Porter’s quest for revenge after he’s shot in the back in the aftermath of a robbery of a Chinese mafia’s money drop. Helgeland’s original version was deemed to dark for audiences, heavy script rewrites ensued, and Helgeland was replaced with a director who re-shot about a third of the movie, making it much more lighthearted. This was the version that was released in theaters in 1999.
That version is actually still a very good film. The plot is essentially unchanged, regardless of which version you watch. Porter (his named is inexplicably changed from the novel’s Parker) is a small-time criminal, living on the fringe of an unnamed city. He’s got a beautiful, if emotionally fragile, girlfriend named Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), and he gets talked into knocking over a payroll delivery by the local Chinese triad by the psychotic buffoon Val Resnick (Gregg Henry, in a brilliant, comically unhinged turn). Except that the heist doesn’t yield as much as they expected, and Lynn (who believed Porter was cheating on her) shoots Porter in the back, and she and Val make off with the money. The rest of the film concerns Porter’s unrelenting quest to get revenge on Resnick and get his $70,000 (his cut of the loot — he doesn’t want anything except his fair share) back.
The film starts off with a nasty, though somewhat overdone, scene of an booze-addled, back-alley doctor removing bullets (with whiskey as an antiseptic chaser) from Porter, and then it takes off running from there. Porter is a force of nature, a humorless hunter who stalks the streets, stealing from anyone — waitresses, pedestrians, the homeless — to get himself set up for the task ahead of him. Gibson is absolutely perfect in his role, his face just sufficiently weathered, his tone flat and harsh. He’s no superman — he’s constantly getting his ass handed to him by the members of the Triad who Val has tipped off, as well as a pair of crooked cops (played with a wry nastiness by Bill Duke and Jack Conley). But he never lets these bumps and beatings in the road deter him from punching, shooting and stalking his way through anything in his path. Gibson portrays the darkest of anti-heroes — he’s barely likable to anyone except for his one accomplice, a call girl named Rosie (the lovely Maria Bello), who he once worked for as a driver until romance ended up pulling them apart.
Porter steadily works his way up The Outfit’s (the mob that runs the town, who Val now works for) ladder, rampaging through its ranks as he tries to find someone who will give him his money. Along the way, any number of lower level players are put through his personal meatgrinder of a vendetta, including a fantastically weaselly turn by David Paymer, until he works his way to the higher ups, Carter (William Devane), Fairfax (James Coburn) and eventually Bronson (Kris Kristofferson).
The players are all at the top of their game, bringing what seems to be little more than a B-level crime caper to a higher level bordering on genius. Bello is gorgeous and sexy, playing the hardened, world-weary moll perfectly. Coburn, Devane and Kristofferson are wildly varied in their prortayals of crime bosses — Coburn and Devane are clothes horses who surround themselves with an opulence that belies their dirty roots, while Kristofferson is a foul-mouthed, furious son of a bitch who has no intention of paying Parker, and would rather see him dead and gone. Believe it or not, the two other best parts are none of those. First, Gregg Henry is pure lunatic malevolence as Val, a dimwitted, woman-beating sociopath who is petrified of Porter and will throw anyone he can find into the crossfire. He’s a joke to the Outfit, a low-level meathead who serves a purpose because he likes to inflict pain and has no conscience. His “girlfriend” is the deliciously deviant Pearl (played with gleeful yet sensuous and seriously sexy craziness by Lucy Liu) is the other fun part. She’s another character that no one should trust, a violent sexpot whose idea of foreplay with Val consists of them beating each other bloody with fists, boots and telephones.
In the end, the original version of Payback is definitely worth seeing — it was a breath of fresh air in 1999, a witty, nasty, noirish escapade that defied the action movie conventions by making everyone out to be dirty. It’s brutal storyline was peppered with one-liners and a sullen, stilted voiceover by Gibson. Which is of course where we should start with when discussing the Director’s Cut (otherwise known as Straight Up: The Director’s Cut for it’s 2007 DVD release). This isn’t your average director’s cut version, with a couple of extended scenes and unnecessary editing room floor material tossed in to make a few extra bucks in DVD sales. Instead, this is a radical change in tone and mood, and massive plot and expository alterations were made. Gone are the bulk of Porter’s one-liners and jokes, as is the opening scene and the entire voiceover track. Kristofferson isn’t in the movie at all — instead, Bronson is portrayed as nothing more than a voice on the phone (and is a woman, voiced by Sally Kellerman), a brassy, pissed-the-fuck-off ethereal general who is in many ways more effective than Kristofferson (despite his very good performance). Since Kristofferson replaced Kellerman, his entire plotline, including an excessive subplot involving Parker kidnapping his son, is now gone, replaced instead with a cat-and-mouse climax at a subway stop.
In fact, the entire third act is completely different. Darker in tone, more bleak and with a less “love conquers all” ending, by the time the credits roll you realize you’ve seen a wholly different take on the film. It’s also a far superior movie. Even the print itself is different. The cinematography of Payback (either version) is amazing. It shows a tired, depressed city where hope appears to have taken its leave decades ago, leaving only vicious criminals and the detritus they leave as scraps for the bystanders. The sets and atmosphere all reflect this, an austere, comfortless landscape shot with unflinching vision, showing trash and grime everywhere. Every character smokes and drinks constantly, and the dialogue is beset with constant profanity. The violence and bitter resonance in the plot is reflected in every shot, creating a grubbiness and air of desperation in every scene. For whatever reason, however, the original is washed with a blue hue, perhaps to try to accentuate the dreariness. That wash is removed completely from the Straight Up cut, removing some inescapable bleariness and allowing the severe cityscape to speak for itself. Particularly, it makes the numerous tight shots of the characters during their moments of introspection… or their buildups to furious conclusion, more effective. The removal of the hued wash gives a better look at their eyes, the lines on their faces, the slight turns at the corners of their mouths, allowing for the audience to catch some of the more subtle visual cues in the performances.
There are a few things that may deter people from the Straight Up cut — the storyline is much harsher, and Porter is even more of a bastard than we thought. The instances of misogyny and some pretty unpleasant violence towards the female characters is ramped up — though, it’s important to note, not for the sake of gasps or shock, but to deliver a starker tone, to show just how broken the characters really are. Finally, the Straight Up cut has none of the charming denouement of the original, with a far more ambiguous ending and a shift away from the happy ending model, instead leaving the viewer to ponder where the characters might go from there. But I maintain that all of those changes — or rather the removal of the changes from the original version — are worthwhile and make it a better film.
Payback isn’t a comedy — it’s got laughs, to be sure, but their more grim chuckles than belly laughs. It’s got romance, but it’s a messy, scarred romance that shouldn’t be so easily resolved. The characters are not kids on some insipid CW show — they’re hard-nosed, rough-edged, realistic portrayals of a darker world than we know. The recut original attempted to downplay those aspects, adding in more comic relief and romance, but ultimately yielding a less satisfying final product. It’s still a fine picture with those changes — still substantially better than most of the offal that stain our multiplexes on a weekly basis. Yet it’s nice to see its true form. While Payback is an enjoyable entree in the crime/revenge/caper genres, Payback: Straight Up is where the meat is.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.