Payback: The Directors Cut
Payback: The Directors Cut
Review By: Staff
Payback: The Director's Cut
The back story of Brian Helgeland's Payback is quite a complicated one. Helgeland, writer of L.A. Confidential and Conspiracy Theory, got his chance to direct his first film when Mel Gibson liked it so much he got Paramount Pictures involved. Thirteen weeks later they began shooting the film with Gibson playing the lead and all seemed well.
In post-production everything changed. The studio, expecting a project along the lines of Lethal Weapon, screened the film and was not happy with the results. Helgeland shot a film with a brutally violent main character and a nasty tone. The studio wanted to change the story around and make Gibson seem softer and not so ruthless. Helgeland disagreed, stating the idea would change the whole purpose of the film. Gibson played the middleman in the debate, trying to appease both sides. In the end, Helgeland was taken off the project and the studio changed the film to suit its needs.
Years later, Helgeland was given the opportunity to re-release Payback on DVD the way he intended it to be. He went back into the editing room with the same man he worked with eight years earlier and produced Payback: The Director's Cut. The result is proof that editing can make a dramatic difference on a project.
Now I saw the original film a long time ago and I enjoyed it. I thought Gibson's character Porter was a bit too rough around the edges to be worth our time as a main character, but Payback was all about style and I respected what it was trying to do. Seeing this altered version of the film years later, I find myself strangely in line with the views of the studio. Helgeland has taken all the weaknesses of the original work and exaggerated them, turning a highly enjoyable thriller into a disappointing affair.
The plot of Payback is very simple. Porter is a con man. He teams up with buddy Val Resnek (Gregg Henry) to steal $130,000 from the Chinese mafia. Val turns on Porter and ends up taking all the money himself. For the remainder of the film's running time, Porter goes to great lengths to get his money back.
Simple stories like this need to be set up well or else they will rub the audience the wrong way. The most important thing for this screenplay to do in its first act is to establish Porter's motivation for action. In the original film, Porter narrates and gives us the scoop in the very first words of the script:
"Not many people know what their life’s worth. I do. Seventy grand. That’s what they took from me. And that’s what I’m gonna get back."Â
Right from the very beginning we get it. This
The next thing Helgeland does wrong is even worse. In the first cut of the film, Porter was nasty, but not too nasty. Two scenes were eliminated from that version because the studio thought they were too violent. One is a situation in which Porter beats up his girl and the other is when he shoots a man in the crotch for mouthing off. Helgeland adds these moments into his new version and they do nothing but make Porter less likeable to watch.
The problem this director's cut faces is the fundamental difference between anti-hero and villain. An anti-hero is a character that does something heroic or justified (like getting money back that was stolen from you), but does things that are immoral to achieve that heroism (like killing people). A villain is someone who acts against moral characters and usually shows little on the side of heroism. Porter, in this re-cut version, straddles dangerously on the fence between both positions. Before it was clear. Porter was an anti-hero. Now, since he is darker and meaner, it is more difficult to want to watch him kick ass for ninety minutes.
I also have problems with the way the new version ends, or, I should say, doesn't end. At the risk of spoiling too much, all I will say is that we are left with nothing to think about in this version of Payback and that is a big problem.
This review is harsh because there was much to like about the original piece, but despite the terrible changes, a lot of the great moments are still kept intact. The cinematography is still richly blue and the dialogue still contains some memorable lines ("You get high enough, you always find one man."Â). But this attempt by Helgeland to reshape the movie into the way he originally wanted it to be says more about his directing abilities than his willingness to rebel against
The DVD has a lot to offer for film fans. Several documentaries give insight into Helgeland's vision for the new version of the film. They are well put together and do a great job of comparing and contrasting the two movies. One documentary in particular, Same Story, Different Movie, consists of fascinating interviews with Mel Gibson about his stance on the differing views of the filmmaker and the studio. Also in the special features is a well constructed audio commentary in which Helgeland offers listeners into how he interprets each scene. Even if you dislike the new version, you have to appreciate the depth of information here. The DVD gives incredible access into the world of how movies really get made.
Movie Grade: C+
Extras Grade: A "”
DVD Grade: B