Mel Gibson hasn’t played the bad guy in quite a while, so when I heard about “Payback” I was pretty excited to see the middle-aged incarnation of bad-ass Mel. Gibson plays Porter, an unprincipled, heartless, mean codger who just wants the money that he was supposed to get before his wife shot him in the back. Or at least that’s who Gibson was going to play before he took a cudgel to writer/director Brian Helgeland’s version of the film and made his own kinder, gentler “Payback.” Now Porter is a nicer codger who lives happily ever after with his cute little girlfriend and all of the real bad guys in chains or coffins.
Porter rises from the almost-dead to take vengeance on the people who screwed him over the first time around. He gets help from the ubiquitous hooker with a heart of gold (Maria Bello). Meanwhile, the audience gets help from an overbearing, I-ate-cigarettes-for- breakfast-and-liked-it Porter voiceover that essentially narrates everything we see on the screen. It’s unnecessary – we’re not dummies, are we, kids? – and the only excuse I can make for it is that it tries to take “Payback” into the old noir realm of the 1940s where hardboiled detectives had hardboiled voiceovers.
There is also an extremely silly subplot in “Payback” that plays as rather hackneyed and loses its energy after a few references. An Asian mob led by an S&M-loving prostitude (Lucy Liu) are after Porter for reasons of their own and tend to drive up very quickly and wreak havoc on the beleaguered not-so-bad guy. Then there are the two police detectives who are using Porter for their own nefarious, money-grubbing purposes while making none of the mess and losing none of the toes that our man Porter does.
Shot in washed-out tones and then bleached to a near cobalt black and white color scheme, “Payback” looks as gritty as Porter’s voice sounds. The nameless metropolis in which it’s set, coupled with the caricatured villains, lend a comic book feel to the film that perhaps was not intended.
The new “Payback” isn’t all bad, mind you. But it’s very slapstick and funny ha-ha, oftentimes lacking vim where a harder-edged Porter might have brought it closer to the level of the first version of the film and to John Boorman’s “Point Blank,” a take-no- prisoners flick starring Lee Marvin that goes where “Payback” does not dare. Rent the real deal, then reconsider paying your $7.50 for this version.