There were reasons writer-director Brian Helgeland's cut of Payback was dismissed by distributors Paramount and Warner Bros., then heavily re-shot and re-tooled by Mel Gibson's production company, Icon Entertainment. Those reasons are explained in detail by Gibson, Helgeland, and others in the special features of Payback: The Director's Cut (Special Collector's Edition). Among them: Helgeland's version was too dark. America wasn't ready in 1999 to see Gibson play an unapologetic, 1970s-style antihero who might not get exactly what he wants. Audiences didn't have the patience to wait for answers to their story questions. A dog dies. (A big no-no.) All of these comments make sound, practical sense. But here's the bottom line: Helgeland's cut, perhaps even a bit more disciplined and taut (according to Paybackâ€™s editor, Kevin Stitt) than it was in 1999, is a serious movie with an organic tone and logic that makes the film look the way it was meant to look: as a neo-noir film for adults. The theatrical release of Payback, by contrast, was and is silly and vulgar, self-sabotaging, pointlessly vicious, and perversely jaunty. It is very much like--deliberately like--the Lethal Weapon series. The Directorâ€™s Cut makes clear thatâ€™s not at all what Helgeland had in mind.
Kudos to Gibson and Icon for giving Helgeland a chance to restore his film and get it out on this DVD. But a look at both versions (this disc does not include the theatrical cut) back-to-back can certainly make one's head spin. Iconâ€™s revisions in the original release show little faith in a contemporary audienceâ€™s ability to discern much about a story or mood or character from spare but telling details. That film relies on crass swatches of voiceover narration, cute inserts, added scenes, and hipster tunes on the soundtrack. All of that was designed to tell an audience how to feel rather than encourage a cinematic experience encountered with an open heart and mind. Worst of all is a specious third act nakedly built around an obligatory Gibson-gets-tortured sequence, leading the film to a lazy, comforting conclusion. The Directorâ€™s Cut eschews all of that. Gibsonâ€™s character, Porter (based on the central character in the novel "The Hunter," written by Donald E. Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark), is a man returning from the brink of death with nothing but his identity and the memory of something (an almost-nominal amount of money) taken from him. His iron determination, his capacity for brutality and inducing fear, and his survival instinct make him anything but warm and cuddly. It's his few ties to the past--especially an interrupted relationship with a call girl (Maria Bello)--that humanize him. One doesn't have to like Porter; one just accepts him and follows his journey in an honest, unmitigated fashion. Thatâ€™s exactly what Helgeland does, and his cleaner, leaner, smarter cut is instantly rewarding for its uncompromising, undistracted toughness. Special features include a documentary about the filmâ€™s history, and a wonderful interview with Westlake. --Tom Keogh
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