One of the more brutal movies released by a major studio in recent memory, "Payback" is an instance of a movie that managed to get made by accident; it's doubtful that anything like it will be made again for a while. I mean, the movie even breaks the number one rule of film: the dog dies.
Directed by Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential") - although Helgeland did not complete the picture as released theatrically - "Payback" is a 70's noir film released in 1999. Mel Gibson plays Porter, a hardened thief who makes the bad choice of hanging out with the psychotic Val Resnick (Gregg Henry). When their latest job - which nabs them $140,000 - is over, Resnick and Porter's wife (Deborah Kara Unger) double-cross him, leaving him for dead.
After managing to get patched up, Porter hits the streets looking for revenge on Val and his share of the loot. Working his way up the criminal syndicate, Porter comes into contact with an array of characters, from a pair of corrupt cops to a low-level snitch to the various bosses. It's nearly ten years later, and "Payback"'s coldness still surprises. The director's cut of the film is boiled down to the chilly core: this is a wholly and completely badass movie, with a main character whose single focus, above all else, is to exact revenge and get the money - not the whole $140,000 mind you, just his rightful share - back - doing whatever it takes.
"Payback"'s performances are terrific, especially Gibson, who is believable as a calculating criminal whose relentlessly persues revenge and his cut of the loot. Maria Bello, as a prostitute that Porter used to drive, has good chemistry with Gibson. William Devane and James Coburn are memorable in tiny roles as mob higher-ups, while Gregg Henry is a perfectly high-strung, slimy counterpoint to Gibson's character.
During the original release of the film, there was much discussion of how director Brian Helgeland stepped aside after creative differences forced him to leave the project. Many wondered if we'd ever seen the director's cut and this DVD offers it, "straight up." The director's cut of the film is really a completely different picture than the original. While there are not a huge amount of changes, the changes here really do result in a very different tone.
A major change here is that the film has been restored, for better or worse (I think worse) to its original color palette. The picture was shot normally, then went through a bleach bypass process (the negative did not go through the bypass process, the print did) in order to give the picture the cold, steely look that it had in the theatrical cut and on the original DVD. Here, we get a more rich, colorful looking "Payback", but it honestly didn't sit well with me. The icy chill of the original cut's visuals worked beautifully with the story and tone of the picture.
Director Brian Helgeland also didn't feel that the score from the original film would work with the new cut, and composer Scott Stambler has been brought aboard to provide a revamped score, which works fairly well. Porter's narration has also been scrapped, taking with it a good chunk of the (very) dark humor of the original cut.
Whole characters have been deleted from the new cut of the picture, as well. Kris Kristofferson, who was brought in during reshoots in order to create a new character after the picture didn't originally test well, is completely gone here. The original boss of the crime syndicate, who is voiced by Angie Dickinson (we only hear her over a phone) is in, but never seen. The opening of the film differs and the entire last act of the film has been pulled, putting in Helgeland's original ending for the film, which takes place on a train platform. Other deletions and changes have been added throughout the film, including a darker end for the dog and a different early scene between Porter and his wife.
I'm not a fan of the new look of the movie, but the cut of the film (which is about 10 minutes shorter than the theatrical cut) is a tighter, punchier piece of work. It does take away the dark, sort of absurd humor of the theatrical cut (which I thought worked), but it is a harder noir film, quicker in pace and, in some ways, more raw. I will admit to not liking everything about this new cut of the movie, but aspects of it do work well. It is certainly unlike most "director's cut" editions, and really does provide a very different experience. Fans should take a look and see which they prefer.
VIDEO: The presentation from Paramount Home Entertainment in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Again, the presentation has been changed very noticably here, with the color palette of the film being much richer than the theatrical cut (shown on the original DVD.) Thoughts on the style change aside, the presentation certainly does look quite good here, with excellent sharpness and detail. Small object details are often apparent.
The presentation suffers from a few instances of slight edge enhancement, but otherwise looks crisp and clear, with no artifacting, print flaws or other issues. Colors remained rich and well-saturated here, with no smearing or other issues. Black level also remained solid and flesh tones looked accurate.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation isn't particularly aggressive, but surrounds do kick in for occasional instances of ambience and sound effects. Despite having much of the dialogue spoken in a low growl, the dialogue remains crisp and natural. Score also remains full and rich. Sound effects seem well-recorded and can have quite a punch.
EXTRAS: Director Brian Helgeland offers an audio commentary for the film. Some very good documentaries are also included, such as "Same Story, Different Movie", which provides a full look at exactly what went on that resulted in Helgeland walking off the picture. There's also a lot of information on how the director's cut was assembled and insightful interviews (newly recorded) with Helgeland and Gibson.
"Paybacks Are a Bitch" is a look at filming in Chicago (30 minutes) and Los Angeles (about 19 minutes.) The featurettes do show some of the filming, but there's also a good deal of other material woven in, including interviews with director Richard Donner, who had previously directed Helgeland's "Conspiracy Theory" script (which had starred Gibson) and was something of a mentor for Helgeland, who was looking for something to direct at the time and was writing "Payback". Interesting note: Albert Brooks wanted to play Gregg Henry's part (that would have been a very different film.) These are great, informative featurettes that, like the director's cut, are "straight up" and get right to the point.
Author Donald Westlake provides a fascinating interview about creating the character and the series of novels. It's not only a fun interview about the series, but an enjoyable overview of the author's writing process. Finally, previews for other titles from the studio are offered.
Final Thoughts: I think "Payback" is a terrific noir drama and I quite liked the original theatrical cut. I'm not entirely fond of all the changes that have been made for this director's cut, but it is a very different film that is quite interesting to see. The new DVD does offer a fine presentation and some excellent extra features. It's highly recommended for fans of the film, although I think in this case a lot of people are going to want to keep the original release because it's such a different film and (at least I think) good in its own ways.