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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 7/31/99

1999 (1999) - Paramount

review by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Payback Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/B-

Specs and Features

101 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, "making of" featurette, theatrical and teaser trailers, film-themed menu screens, scene access (18 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & DD 3.0), French (DD 3.0), subtitles: English, Close Captioned

Richard Stark's pulp novel icon "Parker", is one of my favorite literary characters that's ever been created. He's a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners, shoot first, ask questions later kind of guy. You have to admire that. Parker has popped up in quite a few films, although he has only been called Parker in one of them -- a gawdawful film starring Peter Coyote based on (and entitled) Slayground. Let's see... Parker's been in two French films, one entitled Mise à Sac (based on The Score). He's been black in The Split (based on The Seventh), starring Jim Brown. And he's even been played by a woman in the other French film Made in U.S.A. (based on The Jugger), directed by Jean-Luc Godard. The other "Parker" films are The Outfit, starring Robert Duvall, and of course, Point Blank (based on The Hunter) with the ultimate actor-as-Parker, Lee Marvin. In all, there have been 18 Parker novels (a 19th is due out next year) to make great movies out of. Well 18, and for the completists out there, Parker also appears in the Stark novel Child Heist (which was made into a Gary Coleman vehicle, Jimmy the Kid). Three of the above films are owned by Warner (via their ownership of the classic MGM library): The Split, The Outfit and Point Blank, so anyone with a serious Parker fixation, can bombard the WB for some quality DVDs of their favorite mad dog criminal.

The apparent reason for the lack of the name of Parker in most of the films, is that Donald E. Westlake, the creator of Parker (and of the pseudonym Richard Stark), would rather they didn't use the name unless a franchise is created. Good for him. It's a character built for repeats, and with 18 source novels, he could have a long screen life (especially when you know that Parker doesn't have a problem with reconstructing his face, so many actors could play him through a long series of films). Suffice it to say, Payback keeps the name game (and the anti-franchise ideal) alive, with the addition of "Porter", played here by Mel Gibson.

Payback is a remake of that Lee Marvin film, Point Blank (uhm... Warner? Hello? You got rights now -- you gonna release this wonderful film or what?). Payback follows our anti-hero through his mission to get back his half of a score, stolen from him by his "best friend" and his wife, after they shot him and left him for dead. Porter doesn't care what he has to do -- he wants his money. That's what dragged his butt off the ground, and onto the operating table of a crooked surgeon. So how much money would basically force a man to come back from the dead you ask? Seventy grand -- not a whole lot in the world of high-rolling criminal types, but it's not about the money anymore for Porter. It's about revenge.

Porter encounters a wide range of seedy types on his adventure through the underworld. There's a hot dominatrix (played by Ally McBeal's Lucy Liu), there's a pair of immoral cops who want their piece of the action (played by character actor Jack Conley, and director Bill Duke), and who could forget the weasel Stegman, played by David Paymer (when's he gonna get an Oscar?). All in all, it's a fun movie, with great characters, some wonderful lines, and Gibson (who is pretty good as the Parker-like character). But the problem with all that, is that Parker isn't supposed to be fun. Parker is dark, forbidding and tense. This new version is dark, sure (with Gibson's trademark torture scene). But it's also light-hearted, funny, and in a way, happy. Parker (in the world created by Stark/Westlake) doesn't have feelings for anyone, and if he does, he pushes them way down and operates like a shark. I was very disappointed by the film overall, even though I loved the camerawork, the stylized look of the film (Is it the 70s? Is it the 90s? Are we in Chicago? Are we in N.Y.? The answer to all is yes.), and that whole 70s crime drama soundtrack.

Most of the things I liked about the film, were left over from the original director's vision. Brian Helgeland (Oscar winner for his script to L.A. Confidential) wrote and directed Payback, and if he'd had his way, it would have been a pretty faithful adaptation of the Stark novel. Gibson must have had second thoughts on playing such an unredeemable character, and pulled rank, stepping in to have about 30 percent of the film reshot to take the edge of the character, and make him more lovable. I wish Gibson would have sucked it up and let Helgeland have his vision -- the film would have been that much better for it. As it stands, the film was a C+ in theaters, but it could have easily been an A.

Payback on DVD makes the film watching experience a little bit better. Everything I like about Payback really shines on DVD. The 16x9 widescreen transfer is super. The soundtrack comes alive on disc, and overall, seeing the film again in the comfort of my home has made my dislike for this film fade a bit (thus the slightly higher film rating). Starting with the transfer, Payback has a cool (as in cold, detached) look that lends itself totally to DVD. The bleached look of the film, the shiny leathers, the steely cityscapes -- it all simply looks wonderful here (and much, much better than it did in theaters). The sound is just as good. The soundstage is nicely developed -- gun shots resonate, thuds vibrate, and that ultra-smooth soundtrack brings me back to a time when crime films spit in your eye, and stole your wallet. It's a wonderful sounding and looking disc. The DVD doesn't skimp too much on extras, either. There is a "making of" featurette (a simple rah-rah marketing piece), and the trailer and teaser trailers for the film (that both show cut footage). It has more extras than most Paramount discs, but I would have liked a commentary track with Gibson and Helgeland discussing the cuts (fat chance), or even the alternate vision of the film on side B (even fatter chance). That would have made this a must-own DVD. As it is, the DVD was at least given some attention in production, so Paramount scores some extra points from me on that front.

I'm hardly the one to be reviewing Payback for the unbiased opinion. I was disappointed, but I see how the film could have fans. It is well made, but not very true to its origins. Gibson is great, and if you're a fan, you'll love him in this. The film does deserve to be seen, simply based on the quality of the disc, and the wonderful look of the film. I'd recommend it for those who think they'll like it. As for the rest of us, we'll wait for Point Blank to come on DVD (Warner... you listening?).

Todd Doogan

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