A film review by Craig J. Koban
PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP - THE DIRECTOR'S CUT
(Original 1999 Cut)
½ (Director's 2007 Cut)
1999, R, 101 mins.
1999, R, 101 mins.
2007, R, 90 mins.
Porter: Mel Gibson / Val: Gregg Henry / Rosie: Maria Bello / Stegman:
David Paymer / Lynn: Deborah Kara Unger / Carter: William Devane / Mr.
Fairfax: James Coburn
Jean-Luc Goddard once prescribed that the best way to criticize a movie was to simply make another one. Well, that is precisely what writer/director Brian Helgeland has done with the 1999 action film PAYBACK. Although he was originally credited as the film’s director, the Mel Gibson starring vehicle has always been disowned by the filmmaker…and for good reason.
When PAYBACK was released in 1999 it was already plagued by controversy. It was to mark Helgeland’s directorial debut (he hit critical gold with his work as co-writer of the multiple Oscar nominated L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) and with it he wished to revisit some of the grittiness and cynicism that characterized some of the best urban action films of the late 60’s and 70’s (films like THE FRENCH CONNECTION and DEATH WISH come immediately to mind). Loosely a remake of the 1967 noir classic POINT BLANK (directed by John Boorman) and in turn based on the book THE HUNTER by Donald E. Westlake, PAYBACK was going to be a refreshingly dark and fierce action film that presented Gibson as an anti-hero with a real mean-spirited attitude.
Unfortunately, the film that was released in 1999 – one that I enjoyed, I might add – was simply not Helgeland's vision in any way.
Helgeland’s version of PAYBACK never made it to the theatres. Instead, the studio brass at Paramount and Warner Brothers took the mean-spirited and crass film away from the then freshman filmmaker. Several attempts were made to rewrite sections of the film, without his input, to which he inevitably and – not surprisingly – backed away from filming. Helgeland’s film was deemed too dark, too depressing, and too nihilistic by the studios, who were ignorantly hoping that the film would provide another LETHAL WEAPON-style action vehicle for Gibson.
When they saw dailies and a first cut of the film – and saw that Gibson was essentially an disreputable brute without morals that liked to kill defenceless people, beat women, and display a genuine lack of accountability for his violent actions - Paramount and Warner Brothers went into panic mode. Amazingly, Gibson himself – as revealed in a new documentary for the film – even went as far as to support to studios for their decision to re-tool the film.
Perhaps that decision has since haunted the actor. When word of this got out Helgeland was abruptly fired, a few days after winning an Academy Award for L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. He was very quickly replaced and Gibson and the rest of the producers found another director to completely re-work the final act of the film. In essence, only about 70 per cent of Helgeland’s original footage ended up in the 1999 theatrical cut. Much like the debacle the punctuated the SUPERMAN II theatrical cut and – in turn – prompted the release of a director’s cut just last year, the 1999 PAYBACK is a hybrid work of two filmmakers. Although the studios kept hush-hush about the replacement, Gibson has gone on record to say that Helgeland was replaced by the film’s production designer, John Myhre. He, with Gibson’s assistance, re-wrote a new ending and even went as far to recast a major villain in the film. The remaining 30 per cent of the new footage was spliced into Helgeland’s footage and the rest is history.
Like many other notable releases, the reputation of the original PAYBACK and Helgeland’s concept for it were saved by the DVD format. Having just been released in a wonderful new Blu-Ray High Definition Special Edition, I was initially apprehensive about viewing the new version. After all, it’s kind of astounding how modern studios engage in a ruthlessly money-grubbing practice of double-dipping on films for multiple releases on DVD.
Yet, this new version of PAYBACK (now dubbed the STRAIGHT UP: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT) belongs to a new breed of director’s cuts in the sense that it actually makes a huge aesthetic departure in terms of mood, story, and characters from the original. Like RICHARD DONNER’S DIRECTOR’S CUT of SUPERMAN II that was released on DVD in 2006, PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP is an incredibly new way to experience the film. Unlike Donner’s efforts, I sincerely can say that with Helgeland’s film the new version is a subtle improvement for the better.
I have been lukewarm and fairly responsive to director’s cuts before. Some have greatly improved the original film’s (LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL and DAREDEVIL to name a few) whereas others, with their unnecessary extra scenes and long-winded running times, seem more like redundant endurance tests (see the DVD special editions of THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy). I think that what last year’s SUPERMAN II and PAYBACK are now doing is worthwhile and commendable. They are real director’s cuts in the sense that they offer up huge departures from the theatrical versions. Watching PAYBACK and then the STRAIGHT UP version is a unique experience; it gives one the distinct opportunity to see how one story can drastically change shape with a whole new vision behind it. That’s precisely what I love about this new version: It inextricably alters the mood and story of the first, so much so that it makes it feel like a whole new film going experience.
Huge props need to be given to Gibson, Warners and Paramount, who had the nobility to give Helgelend another shot at the film. Interestingly enough, when the director and his original editor were to re-edit the film, all of the original editing tapes were missing. As a result, they had to go back to the original negative and re-work the film “the old fashioned way.” Thus began a time consuming and painstaking alteration of PAYBACK. Not only are story elements, characters, and the ending vastly different, but even the photographic look of the film was tweaked. The original made use of a special bleach bypass process to give the film a saturated, dark noir feel. Rather than to go for the exact same look, Helgeland and company used digital technology to increase the film’s saturation and contrast even more. The result is splendidly dark and viscous. PAYBACK has never looked seamier.
The new film essentially tells the same story as the theatrical cut, but alongside a new main villain and radically changes in atmosphere, this new PAYBACK is far edgier, leaner, and meaner (it clocks in 15 minutes shorter too). Perhaps the biggest change has been to Gibson’s lone gunman, Porter, who was a vengeful badass in the original. What the STRAIGHT UP cut does is make Porter much less sympathetic and more hard-nosed. The theatrical version of the film softened up Porter with some whimsical dark comedy and an even wackier, tongue-in-cheek voice over narration by the gravel voiced Gibson (kind of akin to BLADE RUNNER).
By eliminating all of that, Gibson’s Porter is much more masochistic and ill-tempered, which is arguably closer in conception to what the original film was aiming for. Whereas Porter was a bit more cheeky in terms of disposition in the original film, in STRAIGHT UP most of the humour has been stripped away and we get him as a dry, foul mannered blank slate. Porter feels more like a real instrument of brute force in this version a less a pseudo-Martin Briggs figure.
The film still tells Porter’s basic story of how he and his partner Val (Gregg Henry) try to rob a group of Chinese criminals of $140,000. Following the heist, Porter is backstabbed by Val and his wife (Deborah Unger) and is left for dead. He heels up and subsequently goes to war in order to get his share - $70,000 – back (one running gag is still present here, and that’s when Porter has to correct everyone that he wants $70,000, not $140,000, back). Porter has to plough his way through lowlifes, crocked cops, and Val himself until he finally reaches the head of the "Syndicate" who has his money. All Porter wants is his share of the lout back; it’s all a matter of pride.
Right from the get go, this new PAYBACK has a decidedly different vibe. With Gibson’s narration gone, the film feels more like a street wise and violent revenge genre flick. Porter is not sugar-coated either, as is displayed by a rather shocking opening moment of brutality when he beats on his wife (this is one of many new moments in the film). The film contains many sly edits and changes to film’s narrative, but the largest alteration has to be in the form of the Syndicate boss and his involvement with Porter in the third act.
In the original the boss was played (very well) by Kris Kristofferson and he was a lot less willing to part with $70,000. A subplot involving his son and an eventual capture and brutal torture of Porter ensued. All of that is gone in Helgeland’s version. Now, the boss never makes a physical appearance and only is in the film in voice form (she is also now a woman, played by Sally Kellerman). The new boss also seems more willing to give into Porter’s demands. The conclusion of the film – sans the Porter interrogation and torture – has now been replaced by a more low-key ending that kind of bathes in vague and ambiguous waters. Considering the film’s source inspiration, that’s a wise choice.
Again, I liked the original PAYBACK, but the STRAIGHT UP cut has more of a plausible edge of vileness and nastiness. Gibson’s Porter feels more like a refreshing change of pace for the actor (his performance is more dry and sadistic, thanks to the omission of the somewhat ham-infested voice over), and the whole story also comes across with more tenacity. I found myself rooting far less for Porter this go around than before, but precisely that’s the point. Porter is a world-weary, distrusting, malevolent anti-hero; he’s not supposed to be squeaky clean and heroic, something that studio executives lacked the foresight to see back in 1999. Yet, this does not entirely disqualify the worth of the 1999 version. As Gibson himself stated, the STRAIGHT UP cut is equally as “valid” as the '99 film. In a way, they're both very good films.
Watching Brian Helgeland’s new PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP - THE DIRECTOR’S CUT is in no way a waste of one’s movie-going time. What it does - and what all great, worthwhile direction’s cuts should do - is to take the original film and drastically re-vitalize it. Too many lackluster and lame director’s cuts on DVD do very little, if anything, to improve upon or change elements from the original. Fortunately, Helgeland was given a distinct opportunity to go back and finish his version of the film, something that the studios failed to let him do the first time. What we now have here is a tighter, leaner, and less playfully violent urban action film. With some of its rather erroneous elements taken out, and a totally revamped ending, I was impressed with how much more satisfying PAYBACK is now. I guess this should come as no surprise. This is the same film the writer/director wanted to release in theatres eight years ago.
Strike another victory for the DVD format. We owe it our thanks for this noticeably improved version of the film.