Mel Gibson was so anxious to play someone other than his usual friendly good guy that he ignored his managers' best council and sunk his teeth deeply into the character of Porter, the vindictive, ruthless hood at the heart of "Payback." It was a desperate move. And just like Porter, Gibson may live to regret his single-minded mission.
How do we know that this thug is an irredeemable lowlife? He talks, when he bothers to communicate with words at all, in a ridiculously gritty rasp, as if gargling with sand. He steals a tip from a waitress and takes cash from a homeless guy. He pickpockets an innocent bystander, whose wallet full of cash and credit cards provide the thief with new suits, Rolex watches and a nice steak dinner. He rips a nose ring off his junkie wife's heroin dealer.
There's more: Porter smashes the fingers of a poor bartender. He roughs up everyone who crosses his path and uses a dimwitted crook as a human shield against machine-gun fire. He fires a pistol into the face of a former cohort. He kidnaps a teen-ager. His path is littered with dead bodies.
Porter, as we're informed at the beginning of this brutal, pseudo-hip thriller, has to be just that tough because he's living in a thug-beat-thug world. His problems, related via flashback, began when he and smarmy partner Val (Gregg Henry of "Star Trek: Insurrection") executed the perfect crime.
The two crashed their car into another driven by Chinese money-launderers, whose failure to buckle up meant that they were unconscious or dead after the collision. Porter and Val lifted a briefcase crammed with $140,000 in cash out of their victims' smoke-belching car. They escaped in a car driven by Porter's spouse, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger of "The Game"). Hours later, she double-crossed her husband, leaving Val for dead, bleeding all over a warehouse floor.
As goes the cliché (probably applicable to the film), payback is hell. Porter's self-motivated assignment, after recovering from a grisly, graphically detailed operation by an unlicensed doctor, is to recover his share -- $70,000 -- and kill his former collaborator. Problem is, all the money is gone, spent by Val on a debt owed to a drugs-and-prostitution crime syndicate headed by Carter (William Devane) and, even higher up the corporate ladder, Bronson (Kris Kristofferson).
Brian Helgeland, who directed "Payback" and helped adapt it from Richard Stark's novel "The Hunter" (also the source for John Boorman's 1967 film "Point Blank"), has his work cut out for him. Porter, enlisting the help of old flame Rosie (Mario Bello of "E.R."), a high-priced hooker, works his way into the heart of the organization known as the Outfit. He encounters a weasel of a cab dispatcher (David Paymer), Val's pain-loving girlfriend Pearl (Lucy Liu of "Ally McBeal"), corrupt cops, Chinese baddies and, eventually, three of the Outfit's top honchos.
Helgeland, and Gibson, who used his clout to re-shoot and re-cut "Payback" after disliking the director's version, seem to be aiming for a breezy, quirky thriller, liberally laced with violence and humor, on the order of a Quentin Tarantino movie or an Elmore Leonard adaptation.
There are ingredients here that might be key to such a concoction. Tough-guy talk, sometimes spoken by Porter in noir-ish voiceover, dominates: "You're a sadist," Carter tells Val. "You lack compunction. It comes in handy." Liu gives a funny spin to her role as a gorgeous but vicious sadomasochist. Several minor characters are adequately off-center, and the central figures are as frighteningly mean as they come. The soundtrack is propped up with wah-wah guitars and juicy R&B, rock, funk and blues tunes from James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King, among others.
But there's something strangely static about "Payback," as if these actors weren't quite sure how to play their roles, or what kind of timing to use. The narrative is unimaginatively constructed, sagging in several spots and doesn't offer much suspense. After the umpteenth murder or fight, it's fairly easy to predict what Porter will do next, and why.
Worst of all, Gibson doesn't offer us much of a reason to either root for Porter or hope he brings on a pile of bad karma. Sure, be a bad guy, Mel. But give us a reason to believe in you, or at least to believe that your fate is important.