The Good: Well acted, Fun, Interesting characters, Good direction, Good premise
The Bad: Suspension of disbelief issues
The Basics: Worth watching, Payback is a violent film which is a character study of a man who simply wants what is supposed to be his.
I'd like to start out today by thanking those people who have loyally read my reviews, even if they haven't agreed with me. I mention this at the outset of my review of Payback because before Mel Gibson was an annoying punchline, he made some movies that were pretty kick-ass. Payback might well be his best. And my enthusiastic recommendation of Payback is in no way an endorsement of Gibson or his statements.
Payback. It's violent, blue and delicious. The film focuses on Porter, a robber who after being shot in the back comes back to get what he lost before: $70,000 stolen from him by his running buddy Val. Val, for his part, took $130,000 from a heist they orchestrated, bought his way into the mob and happily left Porter for dead. The film, then concerns itself with Porter's quest to get his $70,000 back and he'll basically work his way up the ladder of the Organization until he gets it. Along the way, he's harassed by corrupt cops, a petty drug dealer and an Asian mob. To get his money back, he'll kill, kidnap and threaten. His only ally on his mission - following his wife's overdose in the first ten minutes - is a hooker named Rosie.
I enjoy this film and it's quite violent. I'd like to take a poke at other reviewers who say that violent films "skew their moral compass." This is the essence of entertainment: the ability to live vicariously and enjoy a good story. In the course of the film, Porter steals cars, kills two people point blank, and shoves a dying man who is begging for help out of a car. Am I going to steal a car, go on a killing spree and shove people on fire to the ground? No. It's not even tempting. Did I enjoy it when Porter did? Yeah. Would I enjoy it happening in real life? No. Why? I'm not an idiot and I doubt you are either. If you're getting your morals from a film, especially this one, then I retract my doubt that you're an idiot. It's entertainment and Payback is plenty entertaining.
One of Payback's strengths is its overwhelming simplicity. In the first five minutes, you know exactly where it's going: Porter is out to get back his $70,000 any way he can. Thus, the film is not the destination, it's a trip. And it pulls it off well. It's no surprise how the film ends, but getting there is very enjoyable. Porter's desperation and finesse with people are fun to watch. He's not as straightforward as many would like. I like villains. I like being able to root for them occasionally. This one is worth rooting for.
Porter is well-enough written. He's morally ambiguous, which means he's not all bad. He has some depth to him. How much? Who knows. When rescuing the woman he loves from Val, he shrugs it off saying "I forgot my cigarettes." Yet he then takes her with him and it's clear he has feelings for her. He's pulled off well as having more depth than being a simple thug. Most of the peripherals are not blessed with the same level of character.
What saves Payback from being simply an average film, then, is the acting. All of the bit parts are filled with actors acting at their peaks. Gregg Henry plays Val with need and arrogance. He's pretty incredible. William Devane, Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn all play higher ups in the Organization and they play them wonderfully. The acting is precise in voice, body and expressions. There's not a single moment in the film that I didn't find the characters believable and real.
My final note would be on the direction. I loved it. From the use of the music to the fact that the whole film is blue washed, giving it a darker, noir (yes, I realize the irony here in the literal sense) feel, the film is well assembled. The camera does use some interesting angles, speeds and overall, the style of the film glows. Don't be intimidated by the violence, settle in for an enjoyable ride; all in all, I was more disturbed by the near constant cigarette smoking than I was by the violence.
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© 2011, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission
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