Mel Gibson is Porter. No first name given. He’s just recovered from three bullet holes in the back and all he wants is the $70,000 that he was ripped off after pulling off a heist. Nothing more. Just his seventy grand.
In Brian Helgeland’s film “Payback,” the idea is to root for the bad guy. Then again in this film, they’re all bad guys. So you are cheering for the best of the best bad guys, I guess. Porter catches up to Val (Gregg Henry), the partner who double crossed him which then leads to Val’s well established crime syndicate that he’s a member of headed by William Devane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson. Great surprise character actors for a picture like this. Porter also crosses paths with a professional dominatrix played Lucy Liu (credited here as Lucy Alexis Liu and primed for Quentin Tarantino material). She’s worth every penny you pay for her services.
Helgeland salutes the gritty, urban crime dramas of the seventies featuring the likes of Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood. The language was more raw during that period. The city was filthy. The violence was even more unforgiving. The film feels quite modern but the cars don’t and the phones are all rotary dials. There’s a washed out grey hue to the cinematography of “Payback,” and its all very welcome. It’s a well made thriller only deliberately not as glossy.
The run on joke is that Porter is only interested in his seventy thousand dollar stake. The thugs he encounters might insist on not giving him a higher amount but as much as Porter gets tormented, he insists it’s all about just the seventy thousand. So, great responses come from that motif, especially Coburn as the fashionista gangster with the alligator skin luggage.
A film like “Payback” is simple in its story. The scenes are all about set up. How does Porter evade a drive by shooting? How does Porter handle a couple of dirty cops looking for a piece? How does Porter outwit a bomb in his apartment? The variety of characters that give Porter a rough time each come off like bad guys of the week in a Quinn-Martin television series. It’s just entertaining to watch Gibson as Porter get out of one situation after another.
“Payback” is a great Charles Bronson film, without Charles Bronson.