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Payback – Straight Up: The Director's Cut

Thank goodness for antiheroes — without them, every Hollywood movie would be almost too noble to bear. We might as well admit up front that the antihero is so much easier to identify with. We can't help but admire freedom-fighter Victor Laslow in Casablanca, but we feel Rick Blaine, standing on a train platform in the rain with his guts kicked in. We tangibly enjoy watching Charles Bronson plug common street-hoodlums in Death Wish, in part because we know it's wrong and maybe we'd do the same thing. And we back London gangster Jack Carter in Get Carter because, after all, a matter of honor is at stake. Brian Helgeland's Payback (1999) starring Mel Gibson shares a source-book with another antihero classic, John Boorman's Point Blank (both adapted from the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake), and if it's not a definitive work of the genre, it's easily one of the most brutal. Gibson stars as Porter, a professional thief with a mission — recover $70,000 stolen from him by his former partner Val Resnick (Gregg Henry). But to do that, he has to take on Val's new bosses, a cadre of crime lords who run an organization known as "The Outfit." Starting out with next to nothing (he was left for dead five months earlier), Porter returns to Chicago and relies on his street-smarts to dig up a few bucks here, a pack of cigarettes there, a credit card, a new suit, a steak dinner, and finally a gun. His target is Val, whom he recently partnered with to ambush a Chinese gang for their loot. But after rooting through the Chicago underworld — from cab dispatcher Stegman (David Paymer) to a pair of corrupt cops (Bill Duke, Jack Conley) and then former girlfriend Rosie (Maria Bello) — Porter begins to work his way up the ladder of "The Outfit," meeting resistance at every turn. What ensues is a dark, sometimes desaturated blend of high-octane violence with a deliciously amoral bent — one that's bound to satisfy Gibson fans (perhaps even those who aren't sure what to make of his notorious 2006 drunk-driving arrest). With Porter pursuing his scorched-earth policy of debt collection, he takes on the highest levels of organized crime, which features William Devane and James Coburn in plumb roles. Writer/director Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Conspiracy Theory) keeps the plot-twists turning, and the intentionally high-contrast print complements the subject matter nicely (as do all of those rotary phones). Undoubtedly, many will say that Payback doesn't compare to its predecessor, but with some pretty shameless acknowledgment of the '70s crime flicks that preceded it, in addition to Tarantino-level comic violence, it's easily the best dose of unrepentant back-alley slime to come out of mainstream Hollywood for years.

*          *          *

Paramount's Payback: Straight Up - The Director's Cut goes against the DVD re-release grain by offering a shorter version than the theatrical film, taking 11 minutes off the original 101-min. running time, eliminating Kris Kristofferson's character completely (an unseen Sally Kellerman is the boss), and offering Helgeland's original, more ambiguous ending. Helgeland left the film in 1997 after creative differences emerged between himself, Gibson, and studio heads, which led to an entirely new introduction and third act in the theatrical cut, as well as a few new scenes for test screenings (Rosie's dog is merely grazed by Val's bullet), all helmed by production designer John Myhre, who wasn't credited and remained unidentified for several years. Meanwhile, Helgeland's scene with Porter getting into a fight with his ex-wife (complete with kitchen utensils), was eliminated then, and is restored here. In addition to Helgeland's cut, the highlight of this DVD release is the 30-min. featurette "Same Story… Different Movie, Creating Payback: The Director's Cut," an insider-ish look at the process of how a film evolves in post-production — Helgeland notes that the movie simply became very different once he finished his job, while Gibson and others offer their own insights into how a movie is made after the cameras stop rolling and test audiences start scoring. Notably, Gibson's Icon Productions graciously allowed Helgeland to reconstruct his preferred version for this 2007 DVD release, which was done from the original film negative after the digital source could not be located — the time-consuming process allowed the director to look at the film with a fresh eye, creating what can be described as a third version, complete with new scoring elements. Helgeland offers a commentary track with the feature film, while additional featurettes include "On Location in Chicago" (30 min.), "On Set in Los Angeles" (19 min.), and "The Hunter: A Conversation with Donald E. Westlake" (10 min.). The solid transfer (2.35:1) is complemented by Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, with notably warmer colors (the original's dominant blue wash has been reduced), and the only unfortunate comment to offer is that the theatrical version is not included in the package for comparison — both are excellent, entertaining renditions of the same material, and the studio's version could use a remastered transfer. Keep-case.

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