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directed by Brian Helgeland
USA 1999


1997 was a big year for Brian Helgeland. After years of toiling as an anonymous screenwriter, he hit the jackpot. He wrote Conspiracy Theory, a big summer action movie directed by Richard Donner (the Lethal Weapon series) starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts. He wrote The Postman, a big epic produced by, directed by, and starring Kevin Costner before the world concluded that Costner was a has-been. Helgeland also co-wrote L.A. Confidential, a movie that has grown in stature during the past ten years. James Cameron’s Titanic is now a cliché, but L.A. Confidential re-freshed film noir for a new generation. Helgeland and Curtis Hanson won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for L.A. Confidential.

In the middle of his whirlwind year, Helgeland showed a spec script that he’d written on his own time to Mel Gibson, who liked it enough to greenlight the movie via his production company. The story appealed to Gibson’s sensibilities so much that he agreed to play the lead. Things seemed to go swimmingly until Paramount and Warner Bros. decided that Payback, as envisioned by Helgeland, was too dark and hard-bitten. Helgeland didn’t accommodate the studios’ demands, so he was booted from his own project.

There are rumors that John Myhre, usually a production designer, was recruited to direct new scenes for the movie, though one can see Mel Gibson’s fingerprints all over the theatrical version. Gibson won two Oscars for 1996’s Braveheart, and he was a veteran of the studio system. Why wouldn’t Paramount and Warner (both had long working relationships with him) ask Gibson to salvage a movie starring him? The theatrical version uses a voiceover narration by Gibson, and given his predilection for violence and suffering, there is no doubt that having the villains smash his character’s toes with a hammer was either Gibson’s idea or something that he embraced with gusto. (Gibson regularly focuses on extreme pain, from popping an arm back into a shoulder socket in Lethal Weapon 4 to the non-stop orgy of blood in Apocalypto. Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ were paeans to Catholic suffering.)

In Payback, Porter’s wife and an associate double-cross him after a robbery. They leave him for dead, but he comes back to town for his share of the money--$70,000. He runs into an assortment of thugs who think that he wants $130,000 or has access to much, much more funds. Along the way, he gets caught between a Chinese gang, a Chinese dominatrix, crooked cops, and a hooker. They all can’t figure out why Porter goes through a lot of trouble for just $70,000. The thing is, as rotten as Porter is, Brian Helgeland envisioned him as romantic anti-hero with a personal code of honor. Porter’s curious quest for $70,000 (when the stakes are obviously worth more than the desired sum) keeps a grip on the viewer’s interest, though because Payback is a genre exercise, there is no “message” at the bottom of it all. What you see is what you get, and sometimes, that’s enough to entertain.

The Director’s Cut removes the voiceover narration and does not have the bluish industrial tint of the theatrical version. Helgeland also made minor trims and additions throughout the first two thirds of the movie, including removing a sequence showing a doctor taking bullets out of Porter’s back. The biggest change is the final act. The Director’s Cut jettisons an extra subplot that appears in the theatrical version. Subsequently, the Director’s Cut is about ten minutes shorter than the theatrical cut. Porter arranges a money drop-off at a train stop, and the movie proceeds from there to an ambiguous ending. While the Director’s Cut’s tone is “bleaker” than the theatrical version’s tone in some regards (Porter beats up his wife, a dog is killed, and we don’t know if Porter lives or dies), I don’t think that the Director’s Cut is “darker” than the theatrical version. The theatrical version is plenty nasty, and the toe-smashing incident remains an iconic moment in Mel Gibson’s gallery of ghastly tortures.

The truth of the matter is that the behind-the-scenes events surrounding Payback are far more interesting than the movies themselves. Both versions have a bouncy energy courtesy of Mel Gibson’s screen persona, though I suspect future generations won’t “get” Gibson the way that today’s people don’t always “get” what made pre-1970s stars tick. In and of themselves, the two Paybacks are no more than solidly-constructed potboilers, but I’d imagine that teachers could use the DVDs for a variety of lessons, from story writing/construction to editing, from demographics testing to Hollywood power plays. As far as double-dips go, Payback: Straight Up (The Director’s Cut) offers a revelatory look at when artistic and commercial sensibilities collide.

David McCoy


Theatrical Release: 5 February 1999

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DVD Review: Paramount (Special Collector's Edition) - Region 1 - NTSC

Big thanks to David McCoy for the Review!

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Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime 90

2.35:1 Original Aspect Ratio

16X9 enhanced
Average Bitrate: 6.28 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.


Audio Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 surround English
Subtitles Optional English
Features Release Information:
Studio: Paramount

Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen anamorphic - 2.35:1

Edition Details:
• audio commentary by Brian Helgeland
• Paybacks Are a Bitch: On Location in Chicago
• Paybacks Are a Bitch: On Location in Los Angeles
• Same Story, Different Movie--Creating Payback: The Director's Cut
• The Hunter: A Conversation With Author Donald E. Westlake

DVD Release Date: 10 April 2007

Chapters 14





As noted in my review, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image no longer has the blue tint that people saw with the theatrical version. You now see the normal dreary grays that dominate cold-weather clothing, though there are some rich brown and yellow hues in some interior scenes. Some shots are very grainy, but this is obviously intentional due to the grittiness of the story, the genre, and the production style. While progressive, the transfer suffers from excessive edge-enhancement in some places.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 English track is technically well-done but undistinguished. It’s a “good” track in the usual sense--decent bass, wide soundstage across the front, intelligible dialogue, etc. You can also watch the movie with a DD 2.0 surround English track.

Optional English subtitles as well as optional English closed captions support the audio.

Brian Helgeland provided an audio commentary that explains some of the editorial decisions that he made, though as might be expected, he is not overly familiar with the theatrical version.

“Paybacks Are a Bitch: On Location in Chicago” and “Paybacks Are a Bitch: On Location in Los Angeles” provide a wealth of on-set footage as well as contemporary and retrospective interviews with members of the cast and crew.

“Same Story, Different Movie--Creating Payback: The Director’s Cut” shows how key personnel collaborated to re-construct Helgeland’s original vision. Everyone--even Mel Gibson--is very supportive of Helgeland’s desire to complete the movie on his terms.

“The Hunter: A Conversation With Author Donald E. Westlake” has the writer of the source novel for Payback talk about his career.

Finally, there are trailers for other Paramount and CBS DVDs.

David McCoy


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Region 1 - NTSC


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