Payback- Review

How much is a life worth? $70,000. No more, no less.

Under the Second Chance Cinema banner, Moviescramble re-assesses the 1999 Mel Gibson film Payback.

In 1999 Mel Gibson was still at the top of his game. The Lethal Weapon series had just reached number four although as the series continued the quality of product dipped dramatically. That is another story for another article!! His future fame as a misogynistic, Jew-hating drunk was still some way off. In terms of his output, Payback is somewhat overlooked. It is in fact one of the best Mel Gibson films out there.

The film is the second adaptation of the Richards Stark novel ‘The Hunter’. The first was the 1967 John Boorman classic Point Blank starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. So Payback has a rather large act to follow. The question that is asked is Can Mel pull it off?


Porter (Mel Gibson) is a stickup artist who along with his wife Lynn and partner Val (Gregg Henry) rip off a Chinese gang to the tune of $140,000.  The job goes wrong for Porter when Val and Lynn double-cross him. Val needs the money to pay off his debt to ‘The Outfit’  an organised crime syndicate that runs the city. Porter is shot and left for dead. Porter is made of strong stuff and more determination than the normal guy. After some shady back street healthcare and a long recuperation he is back on the streets and ready to reclaim the $70 grand owed to him. Val by this time is working for the Outfit and Porter’s wife is back on Heroin in a big way. Porter sets himself up in the city and plans his revenge.  He tracks down his wife in order to find Val.  The outfit is made aware of the situation. Gunfire, blood, explosions, and wisecracks ensue.

This is a classy homage to the film noir genre of the 1940s. It works very well due to a combination of the cast and the director’s vision. Mel Gibson is excellent as Porter. For the most part, the usual Mel acting techniques, goofy grin, rolling the eyes, etc are held in check. Porter is a hard man. He can control himself but is able to change up to become violent at any time. There are several scenes that are explicitly violent. This keeps in with the hard-boiled noir theme of the film. You will not play the nursery rhyme game ‘this little piggy goes to market’ anytime soon without thinking about this film. Greg Henry as Val is the opposite of Porter. He is flash and loud, always looking for some form of gratification. There is a great scene where Porter tracks down Val who is in bed with a prostitute played by Lucy Lui. When Porter threatens Val with violence,  the prostitute stops him and asks that she be allowed to smack Val around.  Val obviously was with her for the physical side of things but this is outwith his control. There are a couple of nice cameo performances in this film. The two crime bosses are played by Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn. Both shine in the small roles they have.

The look and direction of the film are very distinctive. The city has a blue metallic look. All other colours are muted. The way the camera is used harks back to the noir era. There are a lot of shots at low angles, on the floor, or from unusual vantage points giving a very individual look to the film.

Overall this is a good piece of cinema. It proves that in the right company Mel Gibson can produce the goods. A tight hard-boiled thriller that is certainly not for kids. Recommended.

John McArthur
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  1. Pingback: Payback (1999) « valdez2032

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