Today! Because I got hammered –
Directed by Brian Helgeland
Starring Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, William Devane, Lucy Liu, Kris Kristofferson, David Paymer, Bill Duke, John Glover
Hyper-violent revenge fantasy of the late ’90s that it is, Payback is basically a bunch of pretty unlikable characters beating the shit out of each other. What’s not to enjoy in that? Director Helgeland was coming off writing his Oscar-winning screenplay for L.A. Confidential with this fun, bloody knockaround, starring reputed real-life villain Gibson as Porter, a lowlife double-crossed for $70,000 and out for vengeance. Considering the torture and beatings throughout the movie, it somehow manages a pretty light tone, with a lot of comedic bits, especially from the never-better Gregg Henry, film MVP as Porter’s opposite number Val Resnick, and a vintage ass-kicking Lucy Liu, just prior to her Charlie’s Angels/Kill Bill prime.
This is the first opportunity of many I’ll get to discuss how a person’s off-screen beliefs and actions may now be influencing how I view their work in retrospect. Like many folks of my generation, I grew up really enjoying Mel Gibson movies – the Lethal Weapons, Maverick, the Mad Maxs, Tequila Sunrise, Braveheart, Ransom – I was a fan. But in putting this list together, I’m surprised to now find that this may be his only movie that made the cut. Lethal Weapons 1 and 3 were on the long list and narrowly missed beating Rocky IV for that 400th spot. I might be overlooking something, but I’m pretty sure Payback is all there is. Why? I tried to be honest with myself in doing this, and focus on the films themselves, disregarding how personally repugnant I might now find some of the artists involved. But is it possible Mel’s much chronicled and documented shitty beliefs, and his subsequent pillorying in Hollywood, have insidiously sunk my opinion for his Riggs and Murtaugh hijinks? Perhaps. Maybe that makes it easier to still enjoy a mostly despicable character like Porter, among a motley group of no-goodniks in Payback. Maybe. In the unadjusted list of Mel’s hits, Payback is the 10th highest grossing (excluding animated) and he plays likable if not heroic in every single one. So…it might help, I guess.
I would have to award this movie the coveted honor of Best Hammering, for some of the aforementioned torture. Take that, John Henry biopics!
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