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IN SHORT: Entertaining nonsense.
It's got all the feel of a 1950s detective story; the hero all alone in the big city, with only a good looking dame at his side. Except that the good guy is a bad guy who has been ripped off by guys even worse. All he wants is his fair share of the take.
The villains in director Brian Helgeland's Payback are mean, the sex is kinky and the story moves at a pace which will keep you entertained, though I defy you to put it all together in a logical sequence when all is said and done. Adapted from a novel by Richard Stark, this flick has the feel of a stone skipping over a pond. There's a lot of story. There are many sequences that link together only by the most tenuous of threads, all leaving me with the feeling that a lot of stuff was left behind in the book.
For a story set in a modern day metropolis, the new cars don't have air bags and all the phones are rotary. Very stylish, but with both elements crucial to the plot, not very logical. The presence of star Mel Gibson commands your attention even while your brain is saying "this doesn't make any sense."
In Payback, a man called Porter (Gibson) is the brains of a pair of thieves. His partner Val (Gregg Henry) is a sado-masochistic nutcase who takes Porter's half of a heist to buy his way into organized crime. Lynn Porter (Deborah Kara Unger) is the junkie wife who drives the getaway car and shoots her two timing husband (so she thinks) dead. But he's not.
That's where Payback begins, in the office of the back alley doctor who pulls the slugs out of Porter's back. Beautifully filmed by DP Ericson Core, it's all shades of blue and black and white. The doctor's a pig. Porter narrates the story by complaining about criminal health care, an indicator of the twisted humor that fills the flick, and we're on from there. The trail back to Val starts with the ex and leads to a high priced hooker and former girlfriend/employer (Maria Bello); confrontations with a Chinese crime gang; a pair of detectives on the payroll of a low level Mob stooge (David Paymer); and the uppermost levels of Organized Crime, which prefers to be called "The Outfit" (as opposed to "The Syndicate" or "The Mob").
While James Coburn and William Devane and Kris Kristofferson are the faces you'll recognize as mob bosses, it is Val's dominatrix girlfriend Pearl (Lucy Alexis Liu) that you'll remember. This character puts a whole new definition to the word nasty and her encounters with Val are brutally funny. Physically brutal, that is. Helgeland's dialog will have you laughing, even as the violence onscreen mounts with growing ferocity.
It's all totally ridiculous and a helluva lot of fun. Nothing I'll be raving about at the end of the year, but good enough for now.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Payback, he would have paid...
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