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Gibson's revenge film can't find its tone

Starring: Mel Gibson, Mario Bello, Gregg Henry, James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, David Paymer, and Deborah Kara Unger
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland and Terry Hayes
Producers: Bruce Davey and Mel Gibson
Director: Brian Helgeland
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, language, torture, and sexual content

If there is one thing about the advertising business that really needs to be changed, it's the previews for upcoming films. Directors are allowed quite a bit of creative control during the production, but once the film is finished, it is virtually out of their hands. With the lone exception of Stanley Kubrick and a couple other auteurs, the directors must give up their artistic license to studios for marketing and advertising. This is a travesty, since the best films often get overlooked, while the worst films are promoted up the wazoo.

Payback is no exception. It seems that every single film I have attended had a preview for this film attached to it. Every video I rented had Mel Gibson's face before it. There is only so much one person can take. However, the marketing strategy worked, as the theater I attended was nearly sold out. So what does this mean? Is the film bad, or is it one of those rare exceptions where a good film is actually worth all the media attention? First, the reason bad films are promoted so heavily is because studios know they have a bad film but want to get as many people into theaters on the first weekend before the bad word of mouth spreads. Good films, on the other hand, usually get missed, because theaters are so content on pulling a film out of theaters before it has a chance to find an audience. So again, is Payback a bad film? The answer is a definite yes.

Payback begins as Porter (Gibson) lies unconscious, getting two bullets removed from his back. Shot by his wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) and partner Val (Gregg Henry) during the theft of $140,000, Porter now wants revenge... and his share of the money. He steals a man's wallet, buys expensive suits with his credit card, walks out of restaurants without paying. Porter is not your atypical hero, and this is not your atypical action film. What we have here are the ingredients of film noir: femme fatales, evil villains, and insidious heroes. Even the look becomes a character, the nameless city is washed out in a blue hue.

Unfortunately, the film doesn't know what to make of the material, and, I fear, neither does Gibson. Whether you like or dislike Gibson will affect your opinion of the film, but even moreso is the complete and utter dehumanization that Gibson displays throughout the film. Even film noir heroes had their fair share of good qualities. The moments when Gibson tries to connect with the audience seem tacked on, like an afterthought. In fact, that is exactly what they are. Director Brian Helgeland left the film after the studio requested him to add some scenes that would establish Porter as a likable guy despite his evil deeds. What they manage to do instead is create a monster--a hero more unlikable than any of the various villains. We see he has a human side to his personality, but that just strengthens the idea that he is completely without morals.

The film is not without merits, however. The gritty look of the film is eye-catching. The blue hues that seem to flood the screen capture a sense of a corrupt world. The violence depicted becomes even more shocking due to this surrealistic quality. Each gunshot looks more gruesome than in any film since Saving Private Ryan. The acting by the cast (save one exception) is superb, especially Lucy Liu as a dominatrix vixen who really enjoys her work. Liu takes the role way over-the-top and it works hilariously. Whenever Liu is on screen, the film picks up incredible speed.

Strangely, it is Gibson who breaks this film. While not a fan of his, I tend to appreciate his on-screen charisma. Unfortunately, this is his character from the Lethal Weapon series, and it comes off rather bland. Everyone seems to be content on saying Gibson is a great actor... I just don't see it. He doesn't seem to have much of a range, and this film proves it. Every evil deed he does seems more like Gibson trying to break from the normality of stardom instead of the character trying to revenge his near-death. Gibson obviously is here merely for the draw power he has--without him, the film would have felt more independent. Perhaps Gibson should try expanding his range. All Payback feels like is a cross between Lethal Weapon and Braveheart.

Brian Helgeland had every right to leave the film, since he obviously knew how bad it was. After the studio requested reshoots, he just didn't bother. After all, reshoots weren't going to make it any better. In fact, they may have made it worse. Terry Hayes, the writer who wrote the Mad Max films as well as the creepy Dead Calm, and Helgeland, the writer who penned the great L.A. Confidential and the underrated The Postman, handle the adapted screenplay with assurance, despite ending up sounding contrived. After L.A. Confidential, this is a sure step-down for Helgeland.

Payback is rated R for strong violence, language, torture, and sexual content. The torturous scenes are hard to watch, but they also have comic undertones. It's a rare treat to actually laugh as Gibson gets his toes broken with a hammer. Unfortunately, it's one of the very few laughs in the film. The film rides on Gibson's back, and he lets it down with one of his worst performances. Had he been replaced (perhaps by James Woods), the film may have succeeded quite well. After all, Woods is much better at tongue-in-cheek humor than Gibson is.

** out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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