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The Parker Films: Payback Director’s Cut (1999/2006)

November 4th, 2020
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We’re in the home-stretch of my journey to watch the films based on Donald E. Westlake (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark)’s Parker Character.  I really enjoyed 1967’s Point Blank (click here for my review) and 1968’s The Split (click here for my review).  I thought 1973’s The Outfit was a step down, though I did still enjoy the film.  (Click here for my review.)  Sadly I thought 1983’s Slayground was a dud.  (Click here for my review.)  Now we’ve arrived at Payback, which was released theatrically in 1999.

The film has an interesting history.  It was written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who wrote the (fantastic) script for L.A. Confidential (which was directed by Curtis Hanson).  But the film released to theaters in 1999 was not really Mr. Helgeland’s film.  After the studio objected to his cut, Payback was significantly re-written (by Terry Hayes) and re-shot (by John Myhre).  I remember, vaguely, seeing the film in theaters.  I recall thinking it was mediocre.  Years later, in 2006, Mr. Helgeland was given the opportunity to restore his original vision, and his Director’s Cut was released to DVD in 2006.  I’ve heard for years that this Director’s Cut was a far superior version of the film, and I was excited for the opportunity to arrive at this stop in my journey through the Parker films.

To my surprise, it brought me full circle because Payback, like 1967’s Point Blank, is an adaptation of the first Parker novel, The Hunter.  It’s fascinating to see that story depicted through Mr. Helgeland’s unique eye.  The Payback Director’s Cut bears a number of similarities to Point Blank, but it’s also a very different film, which I was pleased to see.

The basic plot is similar: after a successful heist, the Parker character (once again given a different name: this time it’s Porter) is betrayed by the woman he loves (Lynn) and his partner (Val).  They leave him for dead, but he survives and eventually returns to town, looking for payback and the money he’s owed.  But Val has used that money to repay a debt to the Outfit, the criminal enterprise in the city.  So Porter soon finds himself up not just against Val but the forces of the Outfit.

I quite enjoyed the Director’s Cut of Payback.  However, whoof, I can understand why the studios was reluctant to release this version of the film.  This is a DARK, tough, ugly film.  I was surprised by how violent and unlikable the early Parker films allowed the Parker character to be, but wowsers, this one has them all beat.  When Porter gets back into town and finds his former wife Lynn, who had betrayed him, he beats her up in a scene that is excruciating to watch.  (In this film we find out that Lynn shot Porter during the betrayal — in Point Blank it was the Mal character, who is called Val here, who shot him — so I guess that’s there to explain how angry Porter is towards her?  Still, watching him beat the crap out of Lynn in her kitchen is horrible.)  In Point Blank, Lynn (called Lynne there) was addicted to pills.  Here, it’s heroin.  Everything is cranked up a notch more horrific here in the Payback Director’s Cut!

I’ve shied away from rewatching Mel Gibson films in the years since his anti-Semitic tirades came to light.  I’m someone who believes that, generally speaking, it is important to separate the art from the artist.  I don’t object to Mel Gibson’s continuing to work, nor do I fault anyone who continues to watch and enjoy his films.  For myself, however, I’ve found I have little interest in watching him anymore.  (This is a shame, because he’s a great actor who has been in some terrific films!)  I was somewhat uncomfortable watching Mr. Gibson in this film, though I was eventually able to separate myself from that and enjoy his work in the film.  He’s very strong, and his movie-star charisma serves him very well.  Even when playing this brutal, violent character, it’s hard not to invest in him as the story unfolds (which is of course the idea).

There are some terrific character actors in supporting roles.  The two main women are terrific, and they’re given much more sizable roles than any of the other women in these films since Point Blank.  Deborah Kara Unger is fantastic as Lynn.  She goes toe to toe with Mr. Gibson’s energy, and they have a terrific chemistry in their scenes together.  I also loved Maria Bello’s work as Rosie, the call-girl connected to the Outfit who helps Porter in the second half of the film.  As was the case in Point Blank, I was pleased to see the film was structured to allow important roles for two female characters.

Gregg Henry (Body Double, Raising Cain, Femme Fatale, and he was Peter Quill’s grandfather in both Guardians of the Galaxy films) is a hoot as Porter’s slithery former partner Val.  He’s more colorful than the Mal character was in Point Blank.  (He’s more violent, too.  We see he beats up women, not just shorting them on their payment.  Remember what I said earlier about everything being cranked up to a more violent/horrific level in this film?)  He’s the perfect “villain you love to hate.”

Billy Duke (Commando, Predator, American Gigolo) plays a corrupt cop, Hicks.  He doesn’t have much to do, but he’s so fun to watch as someone with his thumb on Porter.  David Paymer (City Slickers, State and Main, Get Shorty, The American President) is fantastic as the sleazy mid-level criminal Stegman.  Lucy Liu is fun in a small role as the S&M hooker Mal likes to get it on with.  (This prostitute who gets off on pain would have fit in well in Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City.)  William Devane (24, Marathon Man, The Dark Knight Rises) is terrific as the silky-smooth but menacing Carter, a high-up muckity-muck in the Outfit.  I smiled to see John Glover (Lionel Luthor on Smallville, Annie Hall, Shazam!) as one of Carter’s henchmen.  It’s fun to see James Coburn (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Our Man Flint, Affliction, Maverick) as Fairfax, another important figure in the Outfit.  I liked the choice to make Bronson, the Outfit’s top dog, a woman rather than a man.  We don’t see Bronson in the Director’s Cut; her voice on the phone was played by Sally Kellerman.  In the theatrical cut, we see lots of Bronson — after Mr. Helgeland left the film, large swaths of the third act were rewritten and reshot, and they brought on Kris Kristofferson to play the significantly-enlarged role of Bronson.  I remember quite liking Mr. Kristofferson in the film.  I think his presence is the only aspect of the theatrical cut that I missed in this Director’s Cut.

It’s tough for me to compare the two versions since I did not rewatch the theatrical cut; I’m relying on my two-decade-old memories.  As I noted above, I can see why the studio — and perhaps many audience members — might have preferred the theatrical cut, which toned down on the violence and horror and made Mel Gibson’s Porter character more likable.  The Director’s Cut was often tough for me to watch, and I doubt this is a film I will revisit any time soon.  On the other hand, if you’re going to tell this story, then be brave and tell it.  The Director’s Cut feels like a film with a vision and a reason to be, and I respect it for that.  Also, I’m glad they did away with the cold, ugly blue tint over everything in the theatrical version!

Only one more film to go!  I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on the 2013 film Parker, starring Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez.

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