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Payback – The Director’s Cut (2007)

August 2nd, 2007 · 2 Comments

John Huston once said: “”There is a willful lemming-like persistence in remaking past successes time after time. They can’t make them as good as they are in our memories, but they go on doing them and each time it’s a disaster. Why don’t we remake some of our bad pictures … and make them good?” This Distracted Globe recycles itself and examines the best and worst remakes.

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By Joe Valdez

Porter (Mel Gibson) shuffles through an unspecified metropolis. After stealing change from a bum and a wallet off a citizen, he buys himself a new suit, a .44 Magnum, and pays a visit to Mrs. Porter (Deborah Kara Unger), a junkie. She’s surprised that he’s still alive, and after he smacks her around, expresses remorse for her what she’s done. In spite of his attempts to get her clean, she overdoses.

Flashbacks reveal that Porter took part in a job with his old buddy Val (Gregg Henry), heisting cash from Chinese couriers. Val is desperate to work off a $150,000 debt to “The Outfit” and get back in their good graces. When the haul comes up short, Mrs. Porter shot her husband in the back and Val took off with her, having been tricked into believing Porter had been unfaithful.

Porter sets out to recover $70,000 owed him, find Val and kill anybody who gets in his way. A bookie (David Paymer), a rambunctious call girl (Lucy Liu), a crooked cop (Bill Duke), a mid-level manager for the Outfit (William Devane) and a dapper executive (James Coburn) fall into that category. Porter’s only help comes from Rosie (Maria Bello), a classy call girl he left the Outfit for when he fell in love with her.

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Mel Gibson and his Icon Productions had been developing an adaptation of The Hunter, a 1962 crime thriller written by Donald Westlake under the pseudonym “Richard Stark.” The novel had already been made into a movie in 1967 titled Point Blank. The bare knuckled plot concerned a criminal (Lee Marvin) who’s shot by his partner (John Vernon), but survives to go on a rampage of revenge and to get his money.

Brian Helgeland adapted a script. Gibson was looking for a project with a fall start, and asked the screenwriter if he could be ready to shoot in twelve weeks. It would be Helgeland’s first feature film as director. When completed, Gibson took a rough cut to his distributors, Paramount and Warner Bros. They had been expecting a crowd pleasing action movie, like Lethal Weapon.

Helgeland saw Payback in the tradition of the cynical, morally ambiguous crime films of the late ’60s and ’70s. The studios wanted to change Helgeland’s ending, which sent Porter off without his money and without reassuring the audience that he survives. Gibson decided that the film needed an entirely new third act and brought in Terry Hayes to write it. Helgeland didn’t feel comfortable shooting it, and was let go.

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Ten days of reshoots under Gibson’s supervision commenced in June 1998. Kris Krisofferson was cast as the main villain. The new third act revolved around his son being abducted by Porter and Rosie from a boxing match. A new prologue set up Porter’s mission. Voice-over narration was added to guide the audience through the story. And the ending was happy. Payback became a modest hit when released in February 1999.

Six years later, Gibson gave Helgeland and editor Kevin Stitt the opportunity to do a director’s cut. They discovered that their original Avid tapes had disappeared and they’d have to recut the movie on film. With no release date, they took their time, fashioning a 90 minute version of Payback which was much leaner and more serious than even Helgeland’s original cut. It was released on DVD in April 2007.

The drama behind Payback is far more involving than what ended up in either version of the film. The director’s cut is less jokey than the theatrical release, but oddly, feels like reshoots and reedits are forthcoming. There are moments of unflinching violence where the film comes alive, but it’s mostly drab and boring. The remake is far more intelligible than John Boorman’s 1967 original, but that really isn’t paying this a compliment.

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Chuck O’Leary at Fulvue Drive-In says, “I think the film works better with Kristofferson, and Porter’s intermittent narration in the theatrical cut is a plus.”

“Ironically, Gibson’s version of the finale is far tougher and more graphic. Helgeland’s shows the same ironic, creative flair that he brought to his L.A. Confidential script,” writes Joel Pearce at DVD Verdict.

In his open letter to Paramount, Harry Knowles at Ain’t It Cool News says, “This is a radically different film. Better music, better editing, better storytelling and just flat out a great film.”

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Based on novel · Crooked officer · Gangsters and hoodlums · Prostitute · Shootout

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam Ross // Aug 3, 2007 at 8:48 am

    I’m a huge fan of “Point Blank,” and I think what really makes that film work is that Porter never comes off as human, with barely any emotions and no real interaction with his environment. This helped explain why he was virtually invincible, but in “Payback” this aspect comes off as cartoon violence, at least to me.

    Because Gibson is never rattled by all the brutal beatings he takes, it robs the film of any real suspense. The suspense in “Point Blank” was finding out who, or what, Porter was.

    Still, I’m glad they made the Director’s Cut, in light of how the studio originally handled it (didn’t know much of the backstory, thanks for filling me in).

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Aug 7, 2007 at 9:24 pm

    Adam: I had a professor in college who loved Point Blank too. I didn’t get it on VHS all those years ago, and I didn’t get it on DVD when I watched it last week.

    Your comments about Gibson playing the part with more humanity, with an eye toward the audience, is on the money in regard to the theatrical version. Porter is a bigger bastard in the director’s cut. Nowhere near as foul as Lee Marvin. I don’t think that would be possible.

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