Thursday, March 28, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: Payback

In 1999 Payback hit America's big screens and did a brisk business earning $81.5 million dollars in the US alone on a investment of an estimated $50 million dollars. The Payback that hit the big screen, however, was not the Payback that director Brian Helgeland originally made. Helgeland, coming off his successful script for Curtis Hanson's LA Confidential (1997) wanted, as he says in a featurette on the DVD for Payback: Straight Up, the directors cut of Payback released in 2007, "Same Story, Different Movie", to make a throwback to the anti-hero films of the 1970s. What he got, thanks to the suits at Warner Brothers and Paramount, the two studios who, along with Mel Gibson's Icon Productions made Payback, was something very different.

The theatrical release of Payback is very different from the film Helgeland intended. The suits at Warner's and Paramount transformed the originals gritty realism, thanks to a bleach bypass process, from a more radiant more realistic colour palette into a tinted steely blue. They added more Die Hardish humour into the mix. They added a voice over from Porter to give it a noirish quality and to, perhaps more importantly, allow the audience to identify with and root for Porter. They replaced the unseen female voice of the head of the mafia like the Outfit Bronson (Sally Kellerman), which we only hear on the phone, with the Kris Kristofferson who we see quite a lot of on the screen. They reordered the narrative of the film. The theatrical cut begins with Porter having bullets taken out of his back and then backtracking to show us why. And they took out

the scene where the dog was killed, a definite, as one talking head says on the "Same Story, Different Movie" featurette, Hollywood no no. The directors cut, on the other hand, begins, as did its source material, Richard Stark's (Donald Westlake) The Hunter, with Porter walking across a bridge toward Chicago where he steals a wallet and buys clothes and a gun thanks to the credit cards he has stolen with the wallet before he goes to his heroin addicted wife's (Deborah Kara Unger) grungy apartment where he brutally beats her up. Gibson beats up his wife? Difficult to identify with Mel much? It is only at this point in the directors cut that we find out why he has come back to Chicago. He has returned to the Windy City to pay back his wife who has shot him in the back, and his and her co-conspirator and apparently her lover, Val (Greg Henry), for stealing his share of $140,000 dollars--$70,000 dollars--they have stolen from a Chinese mob led by Pearl (Lucy Alexis Liu), who moonlights as a dominatrix on the side. Val, it turns out, intends to use all of their ill gotten lucre to buy his way back into the Outfit. They added a third act in which Rosie (Maria Bello), the call girl Porter goes to for help and who he has a past with, he was her driver and lover, and who helped and saved Porter in the original version, helps Bronson kidnap Porter's son. Call girls must be taught a Hollywood lesson?

It is impossible not to wonder why the suits at Warner Brothers and Paramount decided to make these changes to Helgeland's Payback. I don't know this for sure and we won't until we are able to go into the archives of Warner's, Paramount, and Icon, but I suspect that the reason why these changes were made has largely to do with Mel Gibson. Gibson tells us in the "Same Story, Different Movie" featurette to the Payback: Straight Up directors cut that the studios wanted another Lethal Weapon but that Helgeland's Payback when finished didn't fit that bill.

I think Gibson's referencing of Lethal Weapon in the featurette is very revealing because I think it tells us why Helgeland's Payback was unacceptable to the suits at WB and Paramount and to Mel Gibson. Gibson, in the late 1990s, was at the height of his film fame powers. How the mighty have fallen. He was just coming off of Lethal Weapon (1987), Hamlet (1990), Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), Lethal Weapon 3 (1992), Maverick (1994), Braveheart (1995), and Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) in which Gibson, while often a damaged man, was a lovable and good guy damaged man. As a good guy lovable damaged man he could not, as he did in the original version of Payback, brutally beat up his wife even though she was a heroin addict and had betrayed him.

The lovable Gibson persona that had been built up in Hollywood with care for years could not be undermined by a character whose sole motivation in the film was to revenge himself on those who stole the money he stole. He had to be turned into the lovable Mel Gibson character the audience came to expect, the Mel Gibson who took revenge on the Outfit because they had kidnapped his son. Payback, in other words, had to be Gibsonised, Melfornicated. It had to be turned into a film that the Mel Gibson fans expected to see. It had to be turned into a film, as the tag line on the poster for the original release of Payback told us at the time, that gave us a Mel Gibson good bad guy we, the intended audience, could root for. So the suits and Gibson seem to have upped the lovable Mel quota by taking out certain scenes and rearranging others, they upped the lovable humour quota of the film making both it and Mel more lovable to the smart ass guy demographic, and they changed the ambiguous ending where we don't know if Porter lives or dies after the big shoot out at the Chicago El Train platform corral. Mel, our hero, after all has to survive to live and fight for truth, justice, and the Hollywood way another day and mass audiences, who are groomed to want a linear narrative with closure, just won't accept an ambiguous ending. And all this, dear unreaders, tells us so much about contemporary Hollywood and the mass movie going audience it has trained to stand up and bark on cue.

Payback: Straight Up, 2007 (1999), written and directed by Brian Helgeland, 2:35:1, Paramount. For once the term director's cut on a DVD actually means something.

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