America loves bad guys. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the movies, where flicks like Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have captured the minds of audiences. Sometimes these movies seem to relish a little too much of their own sadism and evil, as in Reservoir Dogs, but as long as the anti-hero seems rational in his decisions, I can wallow in my darker side and enjoy the ride. Payback was advertised as just such a spectacle, so I was eager to see if it could live up to its dark and intriguing trailers. I was not disappointed.
Payback is excellent because it relies on two elements that are handled superbly. First, the plot is so ludicrously simple that even the characters themselves tend to wonder about it. Essentially the plot is this: two thieves, Porter (Mel Gibson) and Val Resnick (Gregg Henry) plan and execute a heist. After its successful completion, Val decides to steal Porter’s cut of the money and seduce Porter’s wife Lynn, who attempts to kill her husband. Naturally, Porter survives the attempted murder and reappears in the crime-infested city with only one thing on his mind â€“ to recover the seventy thousand dollars that Val stole from him. Unfortunately for Porter, Val has used the money to buy his way into the Syndicate, a crime organization that has no intention of giving up either Val or the seventy thousand dollars. This idea of reclaiming his money dominates Porter’s every move. The director, Brian Helgeland throws a half dozen obstacles in his way, including the gang whose money was stolen in the original heist and a couple of bad cops out to grab the cash.
What makes Payback truly great is the combination of its simple plot with the other prime element: memorable, well-developed characters. Mel Gibson manages to combine the personalities of an out-for-revenge biker from his early Mad Max films with that of a tired, Western mercenary reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven. In a slight nod to Clint Eastwood’s similarly name challenged bounty hunter, Porter lacks a first name, but instead of seeming quietly invincible, Gibson allows Porter to occasionally display a softer, weaker side. While Eastwood’s man with no name may seem more menacing, Porter’s dynamic character is more human, which allows for the possibility of an ending in which the protagonist doesn’t win.
Other characters were nicely developed as well, namely Val and Maria Bello as Rosie, a high class prostitute. Val, like Porter, does not get too emotional about the betrayal, attempted murder and robbery of his partner. In contrast to Porter’s quiet determation, Henry plays Val with as much energy as a chaotic force of nature. He dresses snazzily, enjoys pain a little too much and never quite understands either Porter or his bosses in the Syndicate. Rosie once worked with Porter, and it is clear that their relationship is a complex one. For the most part, Helgeland keeps their interactions fairly subtle because they only tend to distract Porter from his goal of reclaiming his money.
This goal leads Gibson, in a somewhat ironic twist on his character in Ransom, to kidnap the son of the Syndicate boss. As one of the most likeable bad guys in the film, Kris Kristofferson plays Bronson, a father who dotes on his son and vows to kill Porter if his loved one is harmed. It was at this point in Payback that I began to seriously question Porter and his motives, for he had crossed the line from amusingly bad to downright evil, and I was no longer sure I could sympathize with him.
The most sadistic scene in the film is, oddly enough, the most warranted act of violence: Bronson brutally tortures Porter to learn where he has hidden Bronson’s son. The advertising for Payback promised that I would “root for the bad guy,” but in a film full of bad guys, I changed sympathies fairly often. Admittedly, I did not have much time to muse about moral qualms as the film rushed towards its conclusion. Even so, I no longer was able to simply revel in the one-liners and explosions.
Nevertheless, the dry humor and mix of retro and modern styles made it easier to overlook the film’s confused handling of morality. The reoccurring plot device of Syndicate flunkies believing that Porter wants more than his seventy thousand dollars was funny, as was the cameo by James Coburn as a tanned Syndicate boss with a passion for alligator suitcases. David Paymer also was highly amusing as a cab operator and small time hood.
Payback was certainly not a revolutionary film, as it mixed straight humor with excessive violence, a time honored Hollywood recipe for action blockbusters like Die Hard and The Rock. What sets this film apart is the concept of a man willing to face certain death for a measly amount of money and the satisfaction he can derive from finally getting his payback.