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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Action > Detective > Crime > Literature > Comedy > Payback - Straight Up: The Director's Cut (Special Collectorís Edition) + Theatrical Cut (comparison/DVD-Video)

Payback - Straight Up: The Director's Cut (Special Collectorís Edition) + Theatrical Cut (comparison/DVD-Video)



Payback - Straight Up: The Director's Cut


Picture: B     Sound: B-     Extras: B     Film: B



Payback - Theatrical Cut


Picture: C+     Sound: B-     Extras: C     Film: B



Eight years after it was a moderate hit in theaters, writer-director Brian Helgeland was allowed to go back and recreate his cut of Payback for DVD.  After completing principal photography in late 1997, Helgeland was fired during post-production (just days after winning a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for L.A. Confidential), replaced by another director for reshoots and shut out of the editing room for the theatrical cut.  Helgeland intended to make a gritty crime-thriller with '70s sensibilities, but the studio brass at Paramount wanted something more commercially appealing for the late '90s.


The surprise is that both the studio's cut and Helgeland's cut work about equally well, even though the 101-minute studio cut ends in a more audience-pleasing way that's more conventional to the genre while Helgeland's 90-minute cut remains truer to the early '70s crime piece he envisioned.


As John Boorman's Point Blank (1967, see the soundtrack elsewhere on this site) three-decades before it and Steven Soderbergh's The Limey (1999) just months after it, Helgeland's Payback is based on the novel The Hunter (written by Donald E. Westlake under his pseudonym Richard Stark).


The tough guy on a single-minded mission in Helgeland's version is Porter (Mel Gibson), a blue-collar criminal cheated out of his end of a score by his own wife (Deborah Kara Unger as Lynn) and his sleazy partner (Gregg Henry as Val Resnick).  Porter is not only cheated out of his portion of the stolen loot ($70,000), but also shot in the back and left for dead.


Resnick, you see, needed the entire take of $130,000 from the score to buy his way back into the syndicate, and Lynn, we later discover, mistakenly believed Porter was cheating on her.  But what they never bargained for was Porter surviving and returning months later for revenge and his $70,000, not $130,000 as Porter keeps reminding everybody, just $70,000.


For Porter, it's not about the money, it's about the whole principle of the thing.  What qualifies Porter as an anti-hero and separates him from the other criminals in the film is that he operates by a code, which is why nobody else can comprehend his monomania.  He's going up against a powerful organization with more muscle and firepower, but the only way they're going to keep his $70,000 is over his dead body.


Taking place in a seedy unnamed metropolis (it was shot in Chicago and L.A.) where people use rotary phones and no modern-day technology (like cell phones or e-mail), Payback appears to unfold in a neo-noir netherworld of the '70s or very early '80s.  And with characters named Carter (a nod to 1971's original Get Carter) and Bronson (a nod to Charles Bronson, the star of many a '70s crime/revenge thriller), references to the Outfit (a nod to John Flynn's 1973 crime-thriller, The Outfit, which is also based on a Westlake novel) and a bar named Varrick's (a nod to Don Siegel's 1973 crime gem Charley Varrick), Payback is a tough, entertaining homage to the kind of gritty '70s crime film that long ago gave way to a slicker yet tamer form of action movie.


Both versions have their pluses and minuses.  Helgeland's cut of the film is more uncompromising in a '70s sort of way and ends on a more ambiguous note.  An example of its darker tone is that Helgeland has a bulldog shot and killed in his version.  The death of the dog, believe it or not, was a main point of contention during Helgeland's battle with the studio, so the dog, of course, is shown surviving in the theatrical cut.


There are also two scenes in the director's cut that are gone from the studio's cut where we encounter a meaner Porter.  In one scene he physically roughs up his double-crossing wife and in another scene kills a syndicate goon in cold blood after the goon insults his lady friend (a prostitute named Rosie played by Maria Bello).  Oddly enough, though, Porter is allowed to punch out a dominatrix (Lucy Liu) in the theatrical cut, but this moment isn't present in Helgeland's version.


The theatrical cut, however, has a better opening scene (Porter getting the bullets dug out of his back by some shady underworld quack) and a livelier musical score I preferred over the music heard in the director's cut.  But the biggest difference between the two cuts is the portrayal of the outfit's head honcho.  In Helgeland's cut we only hear (as the voice of Sally Kellerman), but never see the all-powerful Bronson.  However, for the theatrical cut, the entire last reel was reshot and has Kris Kristofferson (who isn't in the director's cut) appear as Bronson.  To tell you the truth, I think the film works better with Kristofferson as Bronson, and Porter's intermittent narration in the theatrical cut is a plus.


But one big improvement in the director's cut is a return to more natural colors -- gone is the purposely desaturated, blueish-looking color scheme seen in the theatrical cut.


Originally intended for release in August, 1998 (about a month after Lethal Weapon 4, which Gibson filmed after the initial Payback shoot), Payback opened theatrically in February, 1999 with about 30 percent of it reportedly reshot.  Gibson said in an interview that an uncredited John Myhre (normally a production designer) directed the reshoots, but I wouldn't be surprised if Myhre's contribution to the film existed largely with Gibson himself calling the shots, the way Steven Spielberg's authority supposedly superseded director-in-name-only Tobe Hooper during the production of Poltergeist.  Terry Hayes is credited as co-writer only on the theatrical cut, having assumingly written the reshoots, which include a scene where Porter has his toes broken.  Nobody takes a beating better than old Mel.


Like most of those '70s crime films, Payback boasts a terrific supporting cast full of good character actors.  Other foils for Porter include David Paymer as a low-level weasel and wannabe; Bill Duke and Jack Conley as crooked cops; and William Devane and James Coburn as syndicate bigwigs.


Unlike a Charles Bronson, Gibson has such natural charm and good looks that it makes it harder to believe his Porter has sunken so low into the gutter, but Gibson's one of only a few contemporary stars with enough of an edge to pull this character off in the modern era.  Although it's a lot easier "to root for the bad guy" (as the film's original tagline read) when the "bad guy" oozes as much charisma as Gibson.


Paramount's new DVD version of Payback Straight Up: The Director's Cut is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with English 5.1 Dolby Surround sound.  Both the director's cut and the theatrical cut sound about the same, but the getting rid of that blue tint makes the director's cut a better-looking film.This should me more apparent in the HD-DVD and Blu-ray editions issued that we will not be covering, but are available for those interested.


Extras include a feature-length audio commentary by Helgeland, an informative new documentary called Same Story, Different Movie - Creating Payback: The Director's Cut, which includes newly recorded interviews with cast and crew; two on-location featurettes; and a rather brief interview with author Westlake.


We can only hope that one day Universal will follow suit and allow fans to see both versions of another very good crime-thriller that ran into production problems, Burt Reynolds' Stick (1984/1985).



-†† Chuck O'Leary


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