It's been over a decade since Payback was made. Based on the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake, which had already been adapted for the Big Screen as the gritty 1967 thriller Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, the remake was a hard-hitting Mel Gibson vehicle and marked one of the few brutal and uncompromising anti-hero characters that he has played (arguably a darker variant of his famous Lethal Weapon character, Martin Riggs). It is only recently, in the underrated revenge thriller Edge of Darkness (a worthy Hollywood remake of the acclaimed 80s UK BBC TV mini-series) that Gibson displays anything like the dark character he brought to life in Payback and it is somewhat ironic that now, looking more world-weary than ever, Gibson would become even more suited to this kind of role.
The story followed the bloody vendetta carried out by career criminal Porter (Mel Gibson, at his menacing best), who was left for dead by his wife and partner after their last successful heist. It seems that all Porter wants is the money owed to him, but despite the fact that this is a relatively small sum ($70,000), he is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to recover it - basically shooting his way up the food chain of a mysterious group known as 'The Outfit'. Along the way, Porter gets to settle debts with old acquaintances - both his drug-addicted wife Lynn and his treacherous and slimy ex-partner Val Resnick (a super-sleazy Gregg Henry) - as well as renew old friendships with a prostitute he once protected called Rosie (Maria Bello's tough heroine).
The production of Payback has been talked about for several years now - namely that things did not go well. The movie was actually filmed prior to Gibson's return to the Lethal Weapon saga with the fourth instalment, but - apparently at the behest of both the Studios and Gibson himself - was delayed for reshoots, post Lethal Weapon 4, in order to make it less dark, more humorous, more explosive, and also to give it a slightly more upbeat ending. The result was still a thoroughly enjoyable thriller, one of my favourite Gibson movies, but I was always intrigued by the rumours about a vastly different cut - particularly since many of the international video covers, as well as the soundtrack cover, actually sported a shot taken from the closing shootout of this alternate cut - a shot that was not to be seen in the Theatrical version.
Fast forward to 2007 and we finally got the original Director's Cut of Payback. Now this was the movie that Brian Helgeland wrote the screenplay for and Directed, prior to being dropped from the project and having his work changed. I was eagerly anticipating the new version, and picked it up immediately on release, but whilst - if you have to pick one - I do prefer Helgeland's cut, it is not an unequivocally better effort. It is darker, with alternate scenes, different shots, no blue-scale tones, no voiceover, less humour, more brutality, with a more ambiguous lead character and a completely new final act (we're talking about a totally re-shot last third of the movie, which was replaced in the 1999 version under an extra budget of over $30 Million).
I cannot think of a single director's cut available which is so vastly different from the original. Sure, you're watching the same story - but just like the 1967 Point Blank - this is like a different version of the events. However, when it comes down to it, I really liked the original theatrical version, so it is not really a matter of this making a bad movie good, but more a good movie better. And really, no fan would want to substitute his theatrical cut for the director's cut, when clearly having both would be the better option. Back in 2007, the only choice in High Definition was Helgeland's Director's Cut, the shorter version. Despite the massive storage capacity of a Blu-ray, they chose not to include both versions. It was not until the tail end of last year that we finally got a version that boasted both cuts. The UK Special Edition Blu-ray.
Those who do not want too many spoilers should consider skipping straight to the technical specifications and summary, and rest assured that this is the definitive edition to own and is deserving of pride of place in anybody's collection, but for those who want a more thorough analysis of the new footage, I shall go on in more detail.
Firstly, the movie kicks off in a different fashion, with Porter practically silent all the way through until he reaches his wife's apartment (you can see why they chose to give it a voiceover back in 1999 - and I do miss the Raymond Chandler-style a little bit - but the silence certainly adds to the tension and makes the tale generally darker). The scenes between Porter and his wife (played totally off her head by Deborah Kara Unger) are quite different as well, with much more violence between them - including one of the most brutal punches I have ever seen Gibson perform (Unger notoriously broke her ribs during this scene). Moments like this seem more in line with the original story, and again maintain the uncompromising nature of the material - but again I can see why, commercially, they chose to 'lighten up' certain aspects of these scenes.
From then on in, it is mainly the order of scenes that has been changed, with a couple of extra additions - most notably the complete removal of Kris Kristofferson (one of the disadvantages of the director's cut) and replacement with the voice of the unseen uber-boss of The Outfit, also called Bronson. Porter himself is much more brutal, not only towards his wife, but also just about anybody else he comes across - dispatching numerous hired assassins during an excellent final act that is probably the single most significant difference with this version. Basically, rather than the original 1999 movie's explosive kidnapping and torture finale, here we see Porter confront his opponents at a train station, shooting his way to a much more ambiguous conclusion than before. The score is totally different as well, much less prominent, and less catchy, but arguably more in-line with the sombre tone of this revenge thriller.
It should be noted that whilst this is closer to the original intended version from Director Brian Helgeland, it is not actually his 1997 cut, as some of the material was lost, as well as the score. Instead, what we have here is a version that he put together in 2005 after revisiting the project. Obviously much of the material was there, but he had to omit some scenes which were originally shot (apparently there was a scene which explains how Porter got past the guards in The Outfit's hotel, and an even bleaker ending) as well as commission an entirely new score by the Music Editor who did both previous scores. Although this has the Director's stamp on it, and is the closest thing we will ever have to his original vision, it is still not technically the perfect Director's Cut - something which we will just never be able to see.
Tackily dubbed 'Payback - Straight-Up' in the States, Helgeland's Cut is, in itself, a superior revenge thriller, dark, blackly witty, with smart one-liners, plenty of film noir action, some superb performances - not least Gibson on top form - and lots of brutality. It is a lean, well-shot and well-scripted affair that bares a closer resemblance to both the 1967 Point Blank and the original book they were both based on than the 1999 cut does. As I've stated - I prefer this cut, the tone suits the material better, but it is only arguably superior, and not a definitive better version. Fans of the 1999 version will miss the entertaining explosions, the nice voice-over and the alternative, arguably more cerebral (even if this was not in-line with the a-to-b revenge plotting) ending. The cuts are vastly different - and both have their own merits - so the ideal solution was always to have a release that sported both versions, and - after 12 years and numerous different versions, we finally got one. To top it all, it is Region Free, so honestly there is no excuse not to pick up this definitive collection.
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