Payback: Straight Up review by Matt Fuerst


If there's one thing that shameless film fans love it's the thought of an unrealized directors cut of a film. It doesn't matter how good a film is, it may be the greatest, Academy Award winning-yet Indie underground hit that crosses all boundaries of race, age and sex; If there is a hint that there was some nefarious "studio influence" or a displeased director, there will be clamor for the director to let their true vision out into the world. "Who do these executives, these bean counters think they are? Someone with a suit an tie in a crystal house looking at Excel Spreadsheets all day shouldn't be making artistic decisions" outraged artistic types can say. And DVD has been a boon for these folk, and for the lay movie fan as well. No doubt, we've gotten chances to see extra bits of gore, some slightly re-arranged flicks, sometimes an extra glimpse of a nipple or, dare I say, three additional pelvic thrusts deemed naughty by the maternal organization no one is asking for, the MPAA. For years I, and I am sure I am not alone, has heard the story of Payback being pried from the hands of writer/director Brian Helgeland. His cut was too dark and gritty, word around the campfire said, and studio executives wanted a tamer, happier, more audience friendly Mel Gibson vehicle. I don't know if you've managed to catch Payback in the past 8 years or so, but it's a pretty damn dark and gritty movie as is. The thought that the writer of L.A. Confidential wrote something even darker and nastier than what we saw on screen is a real dream for fans of film noir. Fast forward to April 2007, and fans are finally able to see Helgeland's vision on their screens at home. Does it live up to 8 years of anticipation?

Payback is the story of Porter (Mel Gibson). Porter is a small time crook, working in a big time city, on the fringes of where the mob operates. Porter's crook buddy Val Resnick sets up a score, hitting a group of Asian mobsters who carry a large amount of cash on a weekly basis. Porter hatches a plan, and with Resnick help they get away with the cash in hand, no one hurt and no trace of who hit the Asians. Alas, as the saying goes, "you roll with a dirty dog, you're going to get some fleas". Resnick needs the entire score to settle a debt with the mob and get back into the Syndicate (the white-guy mob organization in the city), so he crosses Porter, steals the entire score and leaves him for dead.

That wouldn't be a very exciting movie by itself, but lucky for the audience Porter is a little harder to kill than your average Joe, so he lays low for a while, and eventually rolls back into town. Porter intends to get his half of the score, probably killing Resnick along the way, and nothing is going to stop him in his pursuit. You see, Porter is a bit different than your average crook. Porter's share of the theft was $70,000. While not an insignificant amount of money, it's quite likely easier for Porter to just go set up another score than to try to crack the Syndicate to get his hands on Resnick. But Porter is a man with a code, and while it's a skewed code only a crook would understand, it's one Porter is willing to die for. So Porter starts with Resnick, who can't get his hands on the money, so Porter starts working his way up the food chain of the Syndicate. Porter uses some careful planning, his tough guy attitude and a nice .357 to kill and main his way through whatever stands in the way of his $70,000. Meanwhile, a pair of crooked cops have caught wind of Porter's plans and horn themselves in on his money, with a low level drug dealer also getting in on the mix, all trying to squeeze Porter out of his money, if he somehow manages to live long enough to get his hands on it.

That's enough of a summary to give you an idea of what type of flick we are dealing with here. Fairly raw and dirty, filled with raw and dirty characters. It very much harkens back to 70's era movies where the setting was dark and grimy, and it was hard to separate the good guys from the bad. If you like that type of movie, I'm pretty sure you're going to like, maybe even love Payback. I'll admit it, I love Payback. Off the top of my head, it's the only Mel Gibson movie I'd watch again on purpose (yeah, yeah, Braveheart can be fun and all, but you won't catch me watching it all the time). I love the nasty nature of the movie, I just find it really satisfying to watch. So, the question we have here, does the Helgeland cut live up to expectations? Flat out: no. And it really, really hurts me to say that. I wanted something darker, meaner, nastier. What do we get? Well, there's no doubt there's a lot of changes, and after watching the documentary on the process of creating the Directors Cut, there's no doubt it was a work of love for Helgeland, but, sadly, I'm going to have to tell you to skip the re-cut and stick with the original.

I have to admit, after watching aforementioned documentary I am even more embarrassed at the fact that I prefer the original. The story of the original cut goes something like: Mel Gibson produced the film, and thought the film left too much on the table. He wanted a more cohesive story, and it could be argued he stabbed Helgeland in the back. They worked together a bit trying to find some middle ground, but in the end, Gibson pretty much took the film away from Helgeland and changed it. A lot. He added an entire new first act to the film, cut out the original ending (totally maybe 15 minutes or so) and write an entire new act for an ending (a very significant addition, 25+ minutes). The fact that I am siding with Mel Gibson (who looks absolutely insane in the documentary interviews) and the studio bean counters over Brian Helgeland (a writer and director I respect a great deal, I even liked The Order, but let's keep that quiet, alright?) is giving me stomach pains. I know I am going to publish this review and then the whole world will know what a turncoat I am. Siding with "the man"; I am what's wrong with the film world, apparently.

Gibson's version of Payback includes a stunning gray/blue visual tone to the entire movie, which actually gives it a fitting washed out and beat down look. The visual tone of the film is as depressed as Porter. Helgeland's version restores the film to "normal" color contrasts, livening up the city and the interiors. A definite step in the wrong direction for me. Gibson's version includes a dry voiceover by Porter, being cheeky and at the same time broken over having to deal with all this crap just to get his rightfully stolen $70,000. Helgeland's version nixes the voiceover (maybe just to spite Gibson?). The voice over isn't often used in film and is generally considered low brow by the film intellectuals, but I personally find its use to be great and fitting in movies with the right theme. Blade Runner, old school noir (I just watched Naked City this week).. love the voice over.

What can I say? I am a total sellout to the system. I love the original version of Payback, and won't be watching Brian Helgeland's cut again anytime soon. It's a real interesting curiosity to see how divergent the two movies are, and it's satisfying to the inner film geek to get that weight off my chest after years and years. Either version of Payback is a good movie. Better than what you'd come across from most Hollywood releases. But, I am going to have to give this one a somewhat lessor of a grade since I know how good of a flick it is out there in it's original form. I consider the theatrical release the bees knees, and the true version of Payback.

5 out of 10 Jackasses
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