Published February 1, 1999
Payback is directed by Brian Helgeland, who was one of the writers involved in L.A. Confidential, and, like that film, this one is an exercise in ersatz film noir. It is not exactly a remake of John Boorman’s Point Blank of 1967, but both are based on the same novel, The Hunter, which was written by Donald Westlake under the pen-name of Richard Stark. Boorman made his film, starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, into a rather too up-to-date look at the mid-60s corporation man, something which has long made it appealing to cineastes on political grounds. Helgeland tries from the distance of the 1990s to reach back a generation earlier still, casting Mel Gibson in the role of the existential, noir hero, Porter, who is a criminal in a world full of criminals, but the only one with any integrity. Double-crossed by Val (Gregg Henry), his partner in crime, and left for dead, he has now come back to claim “his” share of the loot, no more and no less, even if that means going straight to the top of the “outfit” in which Val is only an underling.
But, as with L.A. Confidential, the noir is too self-conscious. We never for a moment forget that what we are watching is an imitation not of life, or of anything real, but only of other movies. Some post-modern sensibilities don’t seem to mind this, I know. Many people whose opinion I respect liked L.A. Confidential too. But the fakery is too much for me and, I believe, for good taste. “Crooked cops,” says tough-guy Porter’s tough-guy voiceover. “Do they come any other way?” Well, yes, as a matter of fact they do, Mr Porter. Except, maybe, in the films noirs that serve Mr. Helgeland and his fellow writer, Terry Hayes, in place of the real world. You know the one? It’s where many, if not most cops are not crooked.
Pretending otherwise is typical overkill, like having the sadistic Val exchanging punches with his favorite dominatrix (Lucy Liu) when Porter drops in for a visit. What does the kinky sex add to this narrative? Or, for that matter, what purpose is served by making Porter’s treacherous wife (Deborah Kara Unger) a junkie, or his new love-interest (Maria Bello) a prostitute with a heart that gives off suspiciously aureate glints? None of this is required by the story. It is just a piling on of noirish atmosphere—or what the authors imagine that atmosphere might be, translated to the 1990s—until it is quite stifling. Like Kevin Costner in Message in a Bottle, these characters are all posing, not acting. And the attitudes they strike, originally prized for their grim authenticity, have hardened into an almost comic falsity.
This is the more to be regretted as the film is really quite cleverly plotted (an undervalued virtue these days) and it has some funny moments. But the language never quite achieves wit and frequently tumbles off its precarious perch into the most god-awful parody of old-fashioned noir dialogue so cheesy that a James Bond film would be ashamed of it. “Do you understand your value to our organization?” Mr Big asks Val the thug. “You’re a sadist. You lack compunction. That comes in handy.” So in the final voiceover as the happy couple disappear into the sunset with double the missing money (what was the point of his constantly insisting on getting the exact amount if he gets something else in the end?), Porter tells us: “We made a deal. If she’d stop hookin’, I’d stop shootin’ people. Maybe we were aiming high.”
Not, alas, high enough.