Payback - Straight Up: The Director's Cut Review
The Hunter by Richard Stark had previously been iconically adapted by John Boorman in 1967 as the Lee Marvin juggernaut Point Blank. It was and is considered a genre classic, pretty much untouchable in cinephile terms and to remake it would be a crime on par with Ashton Kutchers’ career. However unlike Kutcher, Brian Helgeland was no imbecile.
Riding high on the critical kudos from adapting LA Confidential Helgeland like many writers before him was ready to make the leap from the typewriter, okay word processor to the directors’ chair. With the whiff of Oscar success still fragrant in the air he chose to tackle Stark’s 1962 novel.
The story of The Hunter follows the Kurtz like quest of our protagonist, Porter (Mel Gibson) in this version, to recover money stolen from him. This task is hampered by the fact he was shot in the back (both figuratively and actually) and left for dead shortly before the money changed hands. Surviving the almost fatal shooting our “hero” bounces back to life with all the super energized recuperative powers of the X-men’s Wolverine, after over dosing on double strength Echinacea.
In the opening title sequence Porter fresh from having bullets plucked from his back robs the homeless, short changes a waitress, steals an identity, steals a meal and buys a gun. Porter in case you missed it is a bastard, not a real bastard obviously but a movie bastard. Not quite bad enough for the audience to lose sympathy with but dark enough for studio execs to start writing notes about the character perhaps petting a puppy or befriending a precocious kid.
Here the film starts to shine with a dark comic under current, as Porter against expectation is not out for Get Carter type revenge, he simply and dogmatically wants his money back. This of course is misinterpreted by everyone in the story with the usual kinetic results. Our “hero” is less that delicate at working his way up through the various strata of the mafia in order to reclaim his prize. In his quest Porter must confront his duplicitous wife, reunite with his ex-lover, batter, bruise and kill various hood and lawyers, all with a detached unknowing blankness the T-1000 would be proud of.
The 1999 original cinema version of Payback was something of a modern noir gem. Uncompromisingly misanthropic and certainly not the slick studio fair that had been Gibson’s vehicle of choice thus far, Payback gave him his best role for over a decade. The film also proved to be a strong showcase for many established character actors to shine. Alongside Kris Kristopherson and James Coburn less prominent talents like Gregg Henry and William Devane fleshed out an extremely talented cast who simply refused to drop the ball. Henry Particularly delivers a memorable turn that could so easily have driven off the road into farce, particularly the scenes with Lucy Lui in which the two indulge in a violent sadomasochistic relationship, closer to Itchy and Scratchy than Tom and Jerry.
Also unusual for the crime genre Payback had something of a secret weapon in the gifted and largely (then) unknown female cast members headed by Maria Bello, Lucy Lui and the underrated Deborah Kara Unger.
However all was not as it seemed. After a rocky test screening that left many in the audience scratching their heads the studio decided re-shoots were required. Helgeland felt either unwilling or unable (he claims he simply did not know any other way to finish the film other than the end he shot) and so was replaced by Gibson for crucial reshoots. Kris Kristopherson was hired and an additional kidnap plot was added onto the end complete with Holywood explosions and a happier coda.
Now almost eight years later Paramount (bless their little cotton socks) have seen fit to let Helgeland complete the film the way it was originally intended. The New Straight Up version presents a different view of the film, a bleaker ending, no kidnapping, no Kristopherson and the voice of Sally Kellerman in the off screen role taken by Kristopherson. The film also looks physically very different, a cold steel blue filter that drained lot of colour was washed over the original 1999 version, here it is gone replace by warmer redder flesh tones.
Is this a better version then? Well herein lies the problem, and it’s a problem most films wish they had, you see the original 1999 version was not the studio butchered disaster you might expect in a case such as this. Actually it was pretty damned good. The 1999 version has a lot to recommend it, not least reuniting James Coburn and Kris Kristopherson on screen. The colder look to the film is more “artistic” choice and any excuse to have Maria Bello on screen longer is welcome.
The voiceover from the 1999 version is also gone and this I feel is a loss. The voice over is a much maligned cinematic tool. In any discussion concerning voiceover it usually takes about 24 seconds before someone takes the name of Bladerunner in vain and this is unfair. Payback used its narration well, not as clumsy exposition but as comedic texture for a character that is otherwise all but impenetrable.
The new version is though is a revelation to fans of the film. If the 1999 version was blacker than black comedy then the Straight Up version is a blacker than black comedy with the lights turned out and the door locked. Gibson here makes Mad Max look like slightly miffed Max as he doesn’t hesitate to beat up his wife, shoot a hood in the ribs at point blank (no pun intended) range whilst handcuffed to another mafia stooge and the biggest of cinematic crime of all (no not Adam Sandler) he smokes! The bastard.
This release is a must have if you have even a passing interest in Helgelands debut. This is Payback viewed through a different pair of eyes and is just as strong a piece of work as It’s 1999 counterpart. Which do I prefer? To be honest if you Deer Hunter me on this I would have to slightly edge towards the Straight Up edition simply because it is a tougher bleaker piece of work that fits the noir tradition just a little snugger. You may well possibly be left undernourished by the leaner directors cut but that said either version of this, Helgelands best film is well worth 101mins or less of your time.
The original R1 disc was a single layer disc with a very acceptable transfer, sharp and crisp with good solid blacks balanced against the steel blue hue of the film. The new version come on a dual layer disc with a 16:9 transfer in a 2.35 : 1 ratio. Due to the sheer volume of extras is a slight tad softer than the previous version but does allow more information to register due to the wider colour palate. Although softer the image is still extremely acceptable. See Below
The audio on the film is presented in both 5:1 and a two-channel mix. The audio mix in 5:1 is nothing too remarkable but is fairly effective in the location scenes with plenty of ambient noise.
Brian Helgeland to be honest is not the best orator in the world, his long slow laconic style occasionally slides into the far side of boring but does contain some the occasional gems of interest. Certainly not in the hallowed ground of a Tarantino or Kevin Smith commentary but well worth a listen.
SAME STORY DIFFERENT MOVIE : 28.55 MINS
The best of the extras this features all the main players in the creation of the original film and pretty much covers the all the bases. Gibson and Helgeland both come across well in situation that easily could have degenerated into a real bitchfest but manage to very reasonably put across their version of events and the merits of their respective versions.
ON LOCATION CHICAGO / LOS ANGELES : 30.00 MINS & 19.38 MINS
Part archive and part retrospective and again involving Gibson and Helgeland these two segments are far more interesting than they sound and are far removed from the usual DVD EPK lazy edit that dominates most modern DVD extras. Highlights include fond reminiscences of James Coburn on set and Mel Gibson proclaiming, “he is Our Man Flint!”.
A CONVERSATION WITH DONALD E WESTLAKE 10.48 MINS
A short but revealing interview with the author of The Hunter who covers the antecedents of his career, the pseudonym Richard Stark and the origins of the story and the various adaptations of his work. A bright informative and very welcome extra helped enormously by an engaging and witty subject.
The extras on this release make it worth the double dip alone whether you enjoy the Helgeland version or not. Given the limited appeal of a film as downbeat and as deliberately noirish as Payback this is an excellent package put together for a film that in any version did not receive the love it deserved upon original release.