Payback: Straight Up (2006)

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*. The movie I’ll be talking about here is a re-cut version of the 1999 film Payback. It’s also called a “director’s cut” but it’s such an extensive re-working, including an entirely different ending, that it’s considered a different movie. Not entirely different, obviously, but different.
*. The most interesting thing about there being two versions, or cuts, of the same film is how innocuous this version, the one rejected by the studio, is. There’s nothing controversial about it, and ratings were never an issue. And yet in 1999 it had to be done over in order to make it more commercial. That tells you a lot about the conservatism of Hollywood. This is not an industry that takes chances.
*. I don’t know if we can call it a remake of Point Blank or if it’s more a return to that film’s source, the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake). That’s an argument that’s been made more realistically before (for example, in the case of Carpenter’s The Thing being a closer adaptation of the source story than Hawks’s 1951 version). But it seems to me that The Hunter is such a generic piece of crime fiction the question is moot. It’s a simple, archetypal plot that could be filmed a million different ways.

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*. Writer-director Brian Helgeland was aiming for a movie not set in any specific time or place, “neither here nor there.” What he got was Gotham, literally the same iconic (Chicago) streets of The Dark Knight. Does that mean we’re in comic book land? Well, we’re definitely in that neighbourhood.
*. I’m not sure that even the director’s cut is the movie Helgeland wanted to make. In the commentary he says that in his mind the ending has Porter dying in the car with Rosie. But to my eye this isn’t even suggested. Obviously Porter is hurt, but we’ve seen him banged up before (several times), and he’s pulled through. He’s tough. Plus Rosie is there to take care of him and they have that big bag of money. He rejects going to a hospital but I don’t see his smile as in any way enigmatic. I just thought he seemed relieved/happy.
*. Does Mel Gibson have a martyr complex? Does he! Getting tortured and having the shit beaten out of him is his stock in trade. This is a guy with a profound belief in the redemptive power of physical suffering. Of course The Passion of the Christ was a movie he had to make, but he’d been down that road before in Braveheart, Lethal Weapon, and even Mad Max. After being shot at the beginning, Walker goes through the rest of Point Blank only dealing out the violence. Here Porter is beaten and shot up, badly, twice (not including the initial betrayal).

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*. What’s with Lucy Liu’s character Pearl? Is she a bad-ass triad head or just a dominatrix prostitute that even the lowly Val slaps around when she isn’t being paid to beat on him?
*. It’s a curious coincidence that this movie was (in its original version) released the same year as Soderbergh’s The Limey, another version of The Hunter story that also starred Bill Duke as a cop. I’d have traded both the corrupt cops here, however, for more of James Coburn.
*. This isn’t a bad little movie. The problem is that for a little movie it comes with a lot of baggage. It’s a Mel Gibson movie, for one thing, and he’s not an easy fit in the role of Porter/Parker. It’s also a movie with a long pedigree that can’t really be ignored. It’s more comic book than pulp, and nowhere near as stylish or ambiguous as Point Blank. I think it does want to get back to something, but whatever that something was, it was gone.

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