Porter (Mel Gibson) has a score to settle, but first he has to get back on his feet. Walking through the city streets he decides the first thing he needs is money, so lifts the cash out of a homeless man's begging funds, and the next thing he needs is a meal, so he goes to a diner and uses the cash for that. It's not enough, but he has some ability as a pickpocket, so steals a wallet and goes on a spending spree, generating a few hundred dollars and gaining a revolver at the pawnbroker's, then treats himself to a slap up meal just as the credit cards are cancelled. Now he has to see about the real money, and heads over to an old acquaintance: junkie Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), who happens to be his wife, his estranged wife, it is safe to say.
Rarely was a movie messed around with so much in post-production than Payback, another adaptation of the Donald E. Westlake thriller that John Boorman's Point Blank was based on. It's a brave actor who follows in Lee Marvin's footsteps, especially in the same role in the same story, but Gibson felt he was up to the task and hired hot screenwriter Brian Helgeland, fresh off Oscar-winner L.A. Confidential, to direct. All was going well and the shoot was completed, then the footage edited, then the director fired, then the reshoots commenced - wait, what? That's right, Mel was unhappy with what Helgeland had dreamt up and felt he could improve on it, so around a third of the original cut was replaced.
Was Gibson correct to stamp his authority on a project that he believed he could refashion in a style that showed him to a better advantage? Once the Director's Cut was released around five years later and people could see what Helgeland had had in mind, the answer was probably not, as the Gibson version was a somewhat flavourless action thriller that seemed a lot milder the further it went on, belying how nasty not merely the source novel was, but also the original incarnation. Although we lost Kris Kristofferson, who was drafted in to play the Mr Big role as the head of The Outfit, we did get a leaner, meaner experience that played to Gibson's strengths as a not entirely trustworthy hero; he had toned this down.
By recruiting his old Mad Max 2 screenwriter Terry Hayes, presumably he thought he could recapture some of that old magic, but the fact remained Westlake's plotting was well served by the Helgeland, if not as well as Boorman's vision which took an almost mystical approach to wrapping things up; here we simply had a note of hope amidst Gibson's usual bloodstained martyrdom. Neither Payback was going to be a classic in the same way, though Point Blank could justifiably be termed a cult classic as well, while its remake did pick up fans, it was more to do with seeing Gibson in badass mode which always went down benevolently with his ever-forgiving fans. In truth, much of what was entertaining was in that plotting and seeing how Porter (not Parker, as Westlake called the anti-hero) extricated himself from sticky situations.
All the while landing others in trouble they would have to clean up themselves, assuming they were still alive at the end of his spree. Tussling with Chinese gangsters, The Outfit which ran organised crime like a respectable business (only with murder, when absolutely necessary), and Gregg Henry as Val Resnick, the ex-partner, ex-best friend, and downright lowdown scoundrel who left Porter for dead, then took his wife and his share of a heist they had perpetrated, this was all very well, but it was the self-consciously stylish trappings that marked this out as a move towards respectability for a deeply unrespectable source, and that tended to jar. Lucy Liu had fun as a dominatrix who beats up Val more than Porter does, and there were plenty of valuable character actors in support, yet that gloss spoke to the real reason Gibson cleaned up Payback, which was he wanted to be a bad guy who was not really all that evil when it came down to it, he only visited his vengeance on those who deserved it, and there was a hypocrisy there. Still, it was pleasing to see Porter demand what seems like such a paltry sum as recompense that nobody believes he doesn't want more. Music by Chris Boardman.