Though based on the same source material, Brian Helgeland's "Payback" is such a loose reworking of John Boorman's dazzling 1967 noir "Point Blank" that it hardly qualifies as a remake. Even so, "Payback," which is structured as an action thriller rather than a moody noir, is not an embarrassment, but it's not distinguished, either.
Though based on the same source material, Brian Helgeland’s “Payback” is such a loose reworking of John Boorman’s dazzling 1967 noir “Point Blank” that it hardly qualifies as a remake. Even so, “Payback,” which is structured as an action thriller rather than a moody noir, is not an embarrassment, but it’s not distinguished, either. Clearly a star vehicle tailored to Mel Gibson’s screen qualities, pic is a passable, intermittently enjoyable entertainment, likely to have a strong opening, though low-key tone, disjointed narrative, draggy pacing and excessive violence (for studio fare) should keep B.O. below the level of a more typical Gibson actioner.
Largely overlooked at the time of its release but now widely considered Boorman’s greatest work, “Point Blank,” made during the height of the Vietnam War, touched a deep chord with its anti-establishment tale of a man seeking justice on his own murderous terms.
Thirty-two years later, original pic’s bold and sparkling elements are nowhere to be found. In the new yarn, moved from Alcatraz and a diffuse, alienating Los Angeles to Chicago’s urban jungle, Porter (Gibson in the Lee Marvin role) and partner Val (Gregg Henry) engage in a heist that goes smoothly enough. But when the time comes to split the booty, greedy Val steals Porter’s share and his druggie wife, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), and shoots Porter. He flees, believing that Porter is dead.
But Porter is reborn with one obsessive motivation: retribution. Single-mindedly, he risks his life to get back his cut of the heist. His ef-forts take him into the city’s underworld, dominated by a secretive syndicate called the Outfit. Scripters Helgeland and Terry Hayes present Porter as a brutally murderous thief who’ll do anything to get his money back, but also a man with an inner code of honor — a gunslinger in the Old West tradition. Indeed, since revenge and justice are chief motivations for Porter’s behavior, “Payback” has all the attributes of an urban Western.
In the 1967 film, the share owed Marvin’s character was $93,000. In the new one, it’s only $70,000, which provides a number of comic-relief scenes, as no one believes that Porter would endanger his life for such a small amount of money. Pandering to Gibson’s fans, the film vacillates between the dark and sinister and the comic and whimsical — not always to its advantage. Helgeland (who won, with Curtis Hanson, an original screenplay Oscar for “L.A. Confidential”) and Hayes pepper the macho dialogue with funny oneliners that alter the story’s morbid, metaphysical tone.
Reflecting the zeitgeist, “Payback” is more graphically violent than “Point Blank”: Some of the torture scenes, in which Porter gets as much as he gives, approach the level of “Reservoir Dogs.” Also in concession to the times, new pic makes Val a sleazeball who’s attracted to S&M sex with Asian dominatrixes, including Pearl (Lucy Alexis Liu). Yarn also expands role of Rosie, Porter’s former flame, an upscale call girl (splendidly played by Angie Dickinson in Boorman’s pic and decently acted here by “ER’s” Maria Bello), who becomes his only reliable partner.
New pic improves on the 1967 film in its stronger characterizations, particularly of the secondary figures, and its superb ensemble of sup-porting actors. The filmmakers add subplots and characters that enrich the material. A black-white detective team, played by Bill Duke and Jack Conley, slightly recalls Gibson and Danny Clover in the “Lethal Weapon” series. Crime mogul Bronson (a solid Kris Kristofferson) is given a spoiled son who is kidnapped by Porter, and the role of Stegman (marvelously portrayed by David Paymer), a lowlife who runs a cab mafia but yearns to belong to the Outfit, is expanded, too. (An uncredited James Coburn appears as a chief syndicate honcho.)
“Payback” retains Porter’s subjective p.o.v. and voiceover narration, though it’s not nearly as cynical and macabre as Marvin’s distorted monologues were.
While “Point Blank” inventively integrated flashbacks and flashforwards, setting its story in prison cells, sewers, shabby apartments and used-car lots, “Payback’s” locales are elegant bars, luxurious hotels and lushly decorated apartments.
At this point, Gibson carries such an established screen image — and a bag of mannerisms — that it’s almost impossible to watch his per-formance without thinking of the “Lethal Weapon” movies. Holding the episodic, occasionally disjointed picture on his shoulders, he ren-ders a decent performance, nothing more.
“Payback” will upset only a coterie of purists. At the same time, pic’s simpler plot, big set pieces and gory violence will satisfy the twentysomething crowds who frequent genre flicks. Adding 20 minutes to the running time of original film is not necessarily a plus, as it accentuates production’s overblown values and Helgeland’s tempo problems.