Payback Straight Up: The Director’s Cut
April 12, 2007
When Payback was originally released in 1999, it was surrounded by a bit of controversy when it was reported that the studio was not happy with writer/director Brian Helgeland’s original cut and with Mel Gibson’s approval, the actor filmed a new third act with the addition of Kris Kristofferson to the cast. This version was not that well received as audiences were put off by the cast of generally unlikable characters. However, over the years, bootleg copies of Helgeland’s original rough cut began to circulate among fans of the film that revealed a significantly different version. Surprisingly, Paramount has allowed the filmmaker to revisit his film and release his version on DVD.
Based on Richard Stark’s classic crime novel, The Hunter (previously adapted as Point Blank starring Lee Marvin), Payback is a tale of revenge. Porter (Gibson) was double-crossed on a job by his wife (Unger) and his partner Val (Henry). They shot Porter and left him for dead, only he survives and comes back for revenge in his own ruthless way. Porter learns that Val has bought his way back into the Outfit (i.e. the Mob) and so he’s got to take them apart to get at his partner and the $70,000 that is owed to him.
Helgeland sets the tone right from the start with a 1970s style font for the opening credits and the old school musical score that evokes Don Siegel’s crime films from the 1960s and ‘70s. Helgeland even names an establishment Varrick’s after Siegel’s heist movie, Charley Varrick (1973). He is clearly a fan of ‘70s era crime films as Porter’s ruthless methods to find Val echo the same cutthroat methods Robert Duvall employs in The Outfit (1973), another adaptation of a Stark novel (actually the sequel to The Hunter).
Porter is an amoral guy not above taking money from a street beggar or skipping out on a dinner check that he can’t afford to pay. It is these little touches that speak volumes about his character. Mel Gibson wisely doesn’t try to make Porter the least bit likable, playing him with steely determination. He wants his money and will do whatever he has to in order to get it. It’s refreshing to have a protagonist that doesn’t try to ingratiate himself. People expecting a wisecracking action hero a la Lethal Weapon will be disappointed with this grim character whose occasional one-liners are delivered with almost bored indifference.
Veteran character actor Gregg Henry plays a real nasty piece of work, a sadistic scumbug who is simultaneously scuzzy and funny. The actor clearly relishes this over-the-top role. Val is a cocky son-of-a-bitch and his inevitable comeuppance is well-deserved. Henry is joined by a cast of memorable character actors including William Devane as a crime boss, Bill Duke as a cop on the take, and James Coburn a high level mob boss.
Helgeland presents a world populated by corrupt cops, weasely fixers, hookers with hearts of gold and sadistic gangsters – all the hallmarks of an uncompromising crime film. This version of Payback is a vast improvement over the theatrical release with the voiceover removed and the implausible ending changed. Also gone is Kris Kristofferson and his whole subplot including the prerequisite Gibson torture scene. The new ending is much more fitting and consistent with the rest of the movie. It is great to see Helgeland’s vision finally seeing the light of day and this once flawed movie restored to its much more superior version free from the meddlesome tampering of studios and test screenings.
There is an audio commentary by writer/director Brian Helgeland. He says that he was only interested in depicting a world of criminals and lowlifes where Porter would be considered a hero. The filmmaker explains that he could never change the ending of his movie because it was always intended to be an homage to the ending of Cool Hand Luke (1967). He talks about and defends the decisions he made in the film. This is an insightful and informative track with Helgeland pointing out what is new in this cut of the film.
“Paybacks are a Bitch” takes a look at the making of the film at the location shooting in Chicago and Los Angeles. Helgeland originally envisioned making a small, gritty crime film on a low budget. He talks about how director Richard Donner taught him how to direct on the set of Conspiracy Theory (1997) which he wrote. Helgeland met Gibson on that film and showed him the script for Payback. The actor agreed to use his clout to get the screenwriter a shot at directing his own script. This extra takes us through the production with new interviews with Helgeland, Gibson, Unger and key crew members with an excellent, in-depth look at how it all came together.
“Same Story – Different Movie, Creating Payback: The Director’s Cut” examines how this new version came together. Originally, the studio was expecting an accessible, Lethal Weapon-style movie and wanted to change the ending. Gibson went along with the studio but Helgeland refused and walked away from it all while the actor wrote and directed a new ending, a prologue setting up who the character was and voiceover spelling things out. In 2005, Gibson allowed Helgeland to restore his original cut. This extra takes a look at the differences between the two versions and the process involved in creating it.
Finally, there is “The Hunter: A Conversation with author Donald E. Westlake.” Richard Stark was a pen name for Westlake as he wrote mystery novels annually under his actual name but wrote a lot more material that he wanted to publish. So, he ended up writing stripped down crime novels for men. He talks about the creation of the Parker character (Porter in the film) and the origins of the Richard Stark moniker. He wasn’t interested in putting in any reader-friendly stuff in the books. They began outselling his Westlake mystery novels much to his surprise and were also being made into movies. He cites the Outfit as the film that presents Parker closest to his novels and seems pretty diplomatic when it comes to commenting on Payback.