By Ty Burr
Updated July 30, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT


  • Movie

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. Interesting thing, though: On its merry way down the sewer, Payback passes its own original source, a 1967 Lee Marvin vehicle in which director John Boorman (Deliverance) lifted gangster noir up onto a plane of weirdly existential purity.

Which is to say that Point Blank is to the late ’60s what Payback is to the late ’90s: ambitious, ambiguous, and trippy versus ironic, retro, and skanky. Since the Gibson version is hitting stores this week, it’s worth digging up Boorman’s film for an irresistible rental double bill. If nothing else, you’ll gain an appreciation for what filmmakers could get away with 30 years ago, as well as confirm your cynicism regarding modern filmmakers’ inability to walk it like they talk it.

Point Blank and Payback are both 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 (on an abandoned Alcatraz in Point Blank) 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.”

Point Blank strips that already skeletal story line down to its Zen essentials. The lead character has been aptly renamed Walker, and, as played by Marvin in what may be the actor’s most emblematic performance, he strides through Los Angeles like a gangland golem: watchful, unstoppable, frighteningly silent. As Walker bloodily works his way up ”The Organization’s” chain of command there’s the sense that he may not even be of this world. When he sends hooker/lover/sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson) in to trap Mal — and then coolly pays her off afterward — she seals away her hurt by telling him ”You died at Alcatraz all right.”

Where Point Blank transcends pulp, though, Payback dives right in, 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 Payback 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 to the old Angie Dickinson role. 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.

Lee Marvin never winks. In fact, he never even seems to blink, which makes sense for a dead guy. Gibson, on the other hand, 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 (allegedly leaving an aural cameo by Angie Dickinson on the cutting-room floor). 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? At the conclusion of Point Blank, Marvin fades into the darkness like a satiated ghost; Payback, instead, ends with Gibson telling Bello to ”just drive, baby.” Then they skedaddle out of the slums, heading safely back toward Hollywood. Payback: C Point Blank: A-

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