Brian Helgeland’s Payback

Isn’t it always kind of more fun when the protagonist of a film is an utter scumbag? I think so, and Brian Helgeland did too when writing Payback, my favourite Mel Gibson film (outside Mad Max of course, but that’s a high pedestal to breach). There’s something so engaging about Mel’s Porter, a street rat career criminal who’s betrayed by his treacherous partner (Gregg Henry) and junkie wife (Deborah Kara Unger), left for dead in an alley. After a rocky recovery he comes back with vengeance on the mind, hunting down those who fucked him over and anyone who profited from it. The first thing he does to set tone for his character is steal cash from a panhandling hobo, which is just about the starkest way to inform your audience of what’s to come. What does Porter want? He wants his 24k from the job he got shafted on, not a penny less and, hysterically, not a penny more either, which becomes the beloved running joke of the film as he prowls streets, poker rooms, titty bars and all kinds of lowlife establishments to get what’s his. Henry is off the rails as his former partner in crime, taking his usual brand of scenery chewing to new heights and picking fights with anyone who makes eye contact with him. He isn’t even the main villain either, that honour goes to a stone-faced Kris Kristofferson as the sadistic head of a shadowy mega crime syndicate who are soon alerted of Porter’s ongoing rampage. There’s uber corrupt cops (Bill Duke, Jack Conley), a weaselly bookie (David Paymer), a bureaucrat desk jockey villain (William Devane), a high class escort with a heart of gold (Maria Bello) who brings out the faintest of softer sides in Porter, a sneering assassin (the great John Glover) and others who all get caught up in the commotion this guy causes just to get his modest 24 grand. A young Lucy Liu also shows up as a sexy S&M hooker with ties to the Triads and enough scary attitude to either turn me on or freak me out, I’m still not sure. My favourite has to be James Coburn as another organized crime hotshot who seems more interested in his elaborate accessories than putting a step to Porter’s nonsense. “That’s just mean, man” he bawls after Mel puts a bullet in one of his designer alligator skin suitcases. So damn funny. This is the epitome of jet black humour, one of the meanest, gnarliest, bloodiest and most entertaining neo-noirs that Hollywood has ever produced. Mel has played so many heroes and upstanding family men that it’s refreshing to see him go for the contemptible asshole shtick, and I’ll be honest I’ve never rooted for one of his characters harder than I do for Porter and his deranged urban crusade every time I rewatch this, which is a lot. Fucking brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

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