Mel Gibson sports a new look in Payback, and it isn’t pretty. The cobalt eyes are as splendid as ever, but his facial muscles aren’t nearly as tight as they used to be, and, perhaps as a result, he seems to be making a strenuous effort to avoid moving them. His stoic homicidal stare, set off by a hairline that appears to be creeping down his forehead (is the hair real or did a possum crawl up there?), is as cold as ice. Yet Gibson, unlike, say, Clint Eastwood, has such instinctive wry enthusiasm as an actor that when he attempts to hold back every last drop of human feeling, it doesn’t render him particularly scary or charismatic. Mostly, he seems depressed, like a guy who has turned to violence out of pure morose indifference. Even his voice, in Payback, is drained of color. Robotic and bone-dry, scraping lower octaves that Jack Webb could only dream of, it’s the voice of sociopathic neo-noir fatalism.
Gibson plays Porter (no first name, just Porter), a professional thief who might also be described as a professional sadist. Facing down a drug dealer who doesn’t appear to be big on cooperating, he grabs the kid’s nose ring and rips it — ouch! — right out of his nostril. A smarmy bartender gets his hand smashed, and when it’s time for the scene in which our hero blows up a car full of mobsters by dropping his cigarette onto a stream of gasoline, his lips part with the slightest gape of satisfaction. We get it: not a nice guy.
What is Porter so testy about? Five months ago, his junkie wife, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), and former partner in crime, the pockmarked hustler Val (Gregg Henry), shot him five times and left him for dead, making off with the $140,000 they were supposed to divide up. But Porter survived after some emergency backroom surgery, and now he’s returned to exact vengeance. ”You look pretty good for a dead guy,” says Rosie (Maria Bello), the saucy hooker who was briefly Porter’s flame. Actually, he looks just okay for a dead guy. Porter wants his money, of course, and he wants Val the betrayer dead. But even all that would hardly satiate his rage. Val works for an underworld organization known as the Outfit — he stole the cash to join — and after confronting his former partner, Porter uses the guy to link himself up to the mobster food chain, demanding, at each level of command, the $70,000 he says he’s owed.
No one will give him the money, and in a strange way that’s part of Porter’s plan. It’s his ultimate excuse to threaten, maim, and kill everyone in his path. He’s not just paying back his enemies; he’s facing down the whole stinking world — the one that dealt him a crap hand. Payback, a rudely squalid street-fascist thriller, is so mean and degraded it carries a lowdown, vicious charge. The picture was cowritten and directed by Brian Helgeland, who cowrote L.A. Confidential and penned the flaccid, preposterous Gibson vehicle Conspiracy Theory, and this time he seems to have stripped away anything that might suggest an ambition beyond the grungiest exploitation reflexes. Payback is a loose remake of Point Blank, the (overpraised) 1967 John Boorman suspenser, but you could argue that it’s really a pulpier Dirty Harry minus the hypocrisy. (The reactionary politics of Eastwood’s most celebrated character were always a thin excuse for venomous power fantasies.) Sadism is the film’s only real subject, and its only real life as well.
Throughout his hate trek, Porter is menaced by pesky foils — a cabal of corrupt cops, David Paymer (quite funny) as a criminal wimp, a pack of Asian gangsters. Dispatching the latter, Porter stands there, implacable, a gun in each hand, squeezing the two triggers as efficiently as the Terminator. It’s a controlled orgasm of violence — blood sport as a walking dead man’s ”honor.” In a trash reduction of Reservoir Dogs, he ends up on a torture chair, with Kris Kristofferson as a scowling Mr. Big who tries to get medieval on his ass. Porter takes him down, of course. But what he’s really taking down is the expectations of the audience. Payback is eminently watchable, and that’s what’s shocking about it; it’s the artistic equivalent of getting away with murder. B-