Somebody owes Porter 70 grand and somebody is going to pay – the hard way -- get ready to root for the bad guy.
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If you want to purge a week of salad and tofu find a great cheeseburger joint; when you tire of the earnest prim diet of Oscar contenders and pretenders there is only one sure cure – a great ‘B’ movie. ‘Payback’ is a great ‘B’ movie.
Start with Mel and the suit – GQ saluted Carey Grant and ‘the suit’ in one memorable issue – (Grant wore the suit for the movie ‘North by North-West’) – and true: Carey is all that in that suit – but check out Mel in ‘Payback’. This is a class act: the look, the feel of the film + Mel’s world weary gaze + the original music by Chris Boardman pounding out a back beat -- relentless horns building & building and Mel breaking faces with the dispassion of a master chef breaking an egg. And all the while he’s doing it in this cool suit that just sets the chill factor several degrees cooler – he ought to have a license for that suit, that’s all I can say -- it’s a great look.
The movie starts with Porter (Gibson) on the slab, barely alive – he’s been shot twice in the back. Porter narrates how he got there: how his wife and Val (Henry) double crossed him on a robbery, shot him in the back and left him for dead. His wife was jealous of his girlfriend, that’s her excuse. Val wanted all the money for himself so he could buy his way back into the good graces of the ‘Outfit’ – a crime organization -- there are two shades of black in this film.
Porter’s share of the robbery was 70 grand. After five months missing and presumed dead he comes back with a vengeance and he wants his money. His wife is a heroin addict and the night he finds her teetering in a garage he tells her she’s cleaning up – but she’s hidden a stash and she OD’s and come morning he discovers her dead. When her dealer arrives Porter beats answers out of him: who her supplier is. This leads him to Stegman (David Paymer) who coughs up info on Val Resnick – you don’t argue with Porter. But if you’re really dumb you try to outsmart him.
Porter breaks into the Oakwood Arms – the Outfits home base – and tells Val he has a day to come up with the money. The big brass hear about it – they go after Porter. Val fingers Porter for the original robbery so an Asian gang is after him. A couple dirty cops want in on the action. His only ally is his girlfriend (Maria Bello), a prostitute working for the Outfit. He was her driver. They both rue the day after their first fling when she went back to work and he drove her to the job -- if they can only get the money and make a fresh start…but that would be like fairy tales.
In this gallery of bad asses, besides Gibson, Gregg Henry as Val Resnick is a first class creep. His performance is laced with fear and adrenalin – you’re never sure if he will fight or take flight. His scenes are edgy and the film misses him when Porter finally writes him out of the script. Resnick’s love interest, played by Lucy Liu, is a dominatrix with attitude – she takes special pleasure in beating her lover to a pulp. But he’s into it, trouble is she doesn’t know when to quit. The two are a hilarious, supremely twisted, couple. David Paymer as Stegman gives his low-level, scum ball three dimensions; and James Coburn as Fairfax, in an uncredited performance, has the savoir faire of a powerful man who just stepped off the golf course and into a shit storm – a nice light touch. As for Gibson – we find him near the end of his romantic-leading man days with the gravity and power of a heavy weight actor – who can do more with a look than others can with 10 pages of speech – on top of his considerable game.
Porter’s foes are bad, but to a man they underestimate him – his smarts, his toughness, his ruthless core. He claws, shoots and kills his way to the top of the organization – all for 70 grand. They can’t believe it – there has to be something more to this guy. Nope. The head honcho Bronson (Kris Kristofferson) finally seems a match; but like all the others he takes his eye off Porter, a fatal mistake.
This is a Chicago movie – it’s all big shoulders and big city grays and blues. The fine score of the film is muscular and driven -- I wish they had taken more advantage of it. It drives the opening sequences and then disappears pretty much until the end. James Brown sings “This is a man’s world” at one point. I guess if we squint and live vicariously through Mel for two hours we can almost believe it. There are some great action sequences, some violent twists and reversals and a satisfying finish. See it when your better half is off saving rain forests – then lean back, light up a stogy and enjoy the dirty pleasure of this film – very dirty and very pleasurable: what a great ‘B’ movie is all about.