"Worry about me."
Now this my friends, this is what I'm talking about when it comes to down and dirty crime films. I'll get to the details in a moment but first, as Paul Harvey used to say, over my shoulder a backwards glance.
I saw the original theatrical release of PAYBACK (1999) on February 22 of that year at the Marble Theater in Marble Falls, Texas. How can I remember such a specific date and time? Easy. I spent that day in the hill country combining business with pleasure. I met my writer buddy Ray Bronk for lunch at the legendary Bluebonnet Cafe in Marble Falls. After lunch, I went to Ray's lake house on Lake Buchanan for a glass of smooth scotch and good conversation. Then I went back into Marble Falls where I met the then owners of the Marble Theater (forgive me, I don't recall their names) for a short interview.
In early 1999, I had already sold and had published an article on historic Texas movie theaters to TEXAS HIGHWAYS magazine. I had in mind to eventually write a book on the subject and was still doing first hand research whenever I could. The Marble, which opened in 1942, was still in operation in 1999 as a first run movie theater, which was the focus of my article and proposed book. After the interview, I went for a brief dinner in town and then returned to the theater to see the film that was playing that night. It was PAYBACK. Oh, and how do I know the date? Because film critic Gene Siskel had passed away two days earlier on February 20th and the marquee at the Marble read "So Long Gene. Thanks for the Memories."
PAYBACK was based on THE HUNTER, the first novel about professional thief Parker by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake). The novel was first filmed as POINT BLANK (1967) by John Boorman with Lee Marvin as "Walker". It's a neo-noir masterpiece but it's not exactly the novel. THE HUNTER was also adapted into a brilliant graphic novel by the incredible Darwyn Cooke in 2009. Cooke has done a couple of other Parker graphic novels and they are all highly recommended, as is everything the man does.
The version of PAYBACK I saw at the Marble Theater that night was radically different than the version I watched the other day. That's because after the film was finished by writer/director Brian Helgeland, the studio insisted on some changes, changes which Helgeland refused to perform. The studio made the changes anyway resulting in a longer running time and a less than satisfying narrative. There was an opening scene that showed "Porter" (Mel Gibson) being operated on for two bullet wounds. Thee was a voice over narration through out the film and everything had a washed out bluish tint to it.
Still, with nothing to compare it to, the original PAYBACK was a serviceable enough little crime film. Nothing spectacular but nothing terrible either. In 2006, Helgeland regained the rights to the film and decided to re cut it into a preferred "director's cut" so his original cinematic vision could be seen.
The results are amazing. The film has a shorter running time. Gone is the meatball surgery opening scene. The voice over narration is jettisoned. And most importantly, the superb cinematography by Ericson Core, stripped of a blue filter, is finally given a chance to shine.
Porter is a professional thief who pulls a heist with Val Resnick (Gregg Henry who looks for all the world like the love child of James Caan and Clu Gulager). Resnick and Porter's wife Lynn (Deborah Unger), double cross him, shoot him in the back and leave him for dead. He gets better and comes back with a vengeance. All Porter wants is his money back, a tidy sum of $70,000 and he'll kill anyone who gets in his way.
Parker runs a gauntlet of bent cops, the Chinese mob (from whom the money was originally stolen) and the local "outfit" which is run by Carter (William Devane), Fairfax (James Coburn) and Bronson (Sally Kellerman as a voice heard only on the phone). Porter is aided by high class hooker Rosie (Maria Bello) and the body counts ratchets up until Porter achieves his objective.
The brilliance of this version of PAYBACK is that Helgeland has opted to set the action in an unnamed large American city. Is it New York? Chicago? The location is never identified (although much of the exteriors were shot in Chicago). And it's never clear exactly when this is taking place as vintage '70s cars are front and center in many scenes while '90s models are glimpsed in the backgrounds. Plus, there are rotary dial phones, among other anachronisms. The result is a timeless crime story taking place in a nameless city, all of which infuses the film with a real '70s crime film vibe.
PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP is a first rate little crime film. It has all of the elements of crime fiction that I dig. Read the original novel, check out the graphic novel and see this film for a full dose of the Stark/Parker magic. If you love this stuff like I do there's more of this material to enjoy. Highly recommended.