By Ty Burr
Updated July 27, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
Mel Gibson, Payback
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Movies can go slumming just as easily as people. Case in point: Payback, an appealingly/appallingly nasty bit of work from director-cowriter Brian Helgeland and star Mel Gibson that yanks the viewer back into the grungy world of Nixon-era crime thrillers.

”Payback” is based on ”The Hunter” (1962), by crime writer Donald E. Westlake (under the pseudonym Richard Stark). Subtitled ”A Novel of Violence,” it tells of a thief named Parker, who, after being left for dead by his double-crossing wife and his best friend, Mal, embarks on an implacable course of revenge against them and, ultimately, the higher-ups of a criminal corporation called the Outfit.

”Payback” dives right in to the pulp, understanding that a blast of fetid air feels fresh in these politically correct days. Still, the notion of a thoroughly rotten hero was novel in 1967 and it isn’t 30 years later, so how you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen ”Pulp Fiction”?

Helgeland tries to dodge the issue by anachronistically setting the film in the early ’70s. It’s a bit surreal: The characters wear contemporary clothing and the year is never specified, but even if the rotary phones and period cars aren’t a tip-off, Chris Boardman’s brass-‘n’-percussion score is pure ”Starsky and Hutch”-era Lalo Schifrin. And it works. For a while.

The antihero’s name is now Porter (Why? Because Gibson carries the film?), but otherwise it’s the same setup. The double-crosser is played by Gregg Henry as a giggling sadist (think early Richard Widmark on poppers) and his Asian S&M-queen girlfriend — a new character, needless to say — is given a lubricious spin by ”Ally McBeal”’s Lucy Liu. William Devane, James Coburn, and Kris Kristofferson enjoy themselves immoderately as crime bosses, and Maria Bello (”ER”) brings a measure of warmth. And Mel? Oddly, he doesn’t seem quite comfortable playing a killer with a frozen soul. His eyes keep doing funny things, as if he’s signaling that he’s not really like this. He’s winking.

Gibson has always been a live wire, and you can feel his native raffishness fighting against this role. Or perhaps he was just experiencing behind-the-scenes jitters: Reportedly, poor test screenings led to director Helgeland leaving the project and Gibson overseeing rewrites and reshoots of ”Payback”’s entire third act. The result is that Porter becomes much more sympathetic in the film’s second half — especially in his relationship with Bello’s Rosie — but if that’s really what the filmmakers wanted when they set out, why bother to make the movie at all? ”Payback” ends with Gibson telling Bello to ”just drive, baby.” Then they skedaddle out of the slums, heading safely back toward Hollywood.


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