Monday, April 23, 2007

Paid in Full

Brian Helgeland's PAYBACK has never been one of those movies that I sit around thinking about, but it does have a few points of interest. The first is that it wasn't really Brian Helgeland's PAYBACK, but let's back up a little first. Based on the 1962 novel by Richard Stark (the pen name of Donald Westlake) about a career criminal named Parker out to get money owed to him after a double-cross, PAYBACK was clearly meant by Helgeland to be a throwback to the type of action thriller made in the late 60s/early 70s. Paramount very probably looked at it as a chance to do their own version of the post-PULP FICTION/USUAL SUSPECTS darkly comic crime thriller. It probably didn't hurt that they had Mel Gibson, who had just starred in CONSPIRACY THEORY, a screenplay written by Helgeland. The movie, in which the name Parker becomes Porter, came together very quickly, but even as teaser trailers were playing in theaters--I remember seeing it in early '98 before HARD RAIN--and even as Helgeland was on his way to winning an Oscar for writing L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, things began to fall apart. After a few test screenings of the original cut producer/star Gibson and Paramount decided something wasn't working. Too dark, too mean, not the ending they wanted. Helgeland, feeling the movie he'd made was the movie he'd made, was let go and a new third act was devised. A narration explaining why he did what he did was tossed in, the whole tone was lightened up, a few extra gratuitous explosions were added. The completed film opened in February '99, did decent business and 5,000 airings on TNT later, that's the PAYBACK the world has.

For whatever reason, Gibson has given Helgeland the chance to go back and present to the world what he originally wanted to. No one ever said DVDs weren't a good thing for film scholarship. What we have now is a version of PAYBACK that is leaner, meaner, absent of explosions and even a relatively faithful adaptation of The Hunter.

Before saying too much about PAYBACK STRAIGHT UP: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT, as the package trumpets it, there's the other main point of interest: POINT BLANK.

I've seen and tried to figure out POINT BLANK so many times that I'm not so sure what to say about it anymore. I first encountered it in college when I knew nothing. I continued to revisit it, until I was seeing it again living here in L.A., where the film is mostly set. Really, it's one of the best L.A. movies out there and some of the city it presents can still be found even today. One of the best filmgoing experiences I ever had in this town was the night it played at LACMA. Not only was female lead Angie Dickinson there to introduce it, but she also sat directly in front of me. Suddenly, the world had turned. I had woken up one night in the City of Angels to discover that I was in POINT BLANK.

The 60s version of the same basic story that comes from The Hunter in which Parker becomes Walker, John Boorman's POINT BLANK can best be described as a action revenge plotline done as existential art film. Lee Marvin is cold as ice, Angie Dickinson truly exudes raw sexuality and the supporting cast is a fantastic array of That Guys, including Keenan Wynn, Carroll O'Connor, Michael Strong, Lloyd Bochner and the great John Vernon in his first major film role.

As much as I will be a defender of the sanctity of the written word, POINT BLANK can truly be seen as a great example of tossing the script aside and using the bare bones of the story to study Lee Marvin, analyze him, take in the world he is moving around in through the harsh color schemes that each of the film's sections is supposed to represent. "I want my money, I want my 93 Grand," Marvin's Walker continually repeats, but does he really? Does he even know the answer to that question? And what to make of the continued suggestions that we're watching the tale of a walking (hence the name) dead man? What are the answers here? Many years after first encountering POINT BLANK, I still don't have the answer.

In making PAYBACK, Brian Helgeland's solution was to not even ask the question. His approach is simple: make a 70s film. In the extensive featurettes on the new DVD, the existence of POINT BLANK is mentioned, but he never offers his opinion of the film. Considering that John Boorman himself has never been very complimentary of PAYBACK (saying that Lee Marvin tossed the first, bad, draft of the script out a window where he assumes a very young Mel Gibson picked it up) maybe this isn't very surprising. PAYBACK'S ambitions are modest, maybe almost too modest for a studio film. It's been a long time since I saw the release version but my overall impression of this one is that of things being stripped down, of any attempts at cuteness omitted to simply tell a tale of a guy who wants his money (70 grand this time around). There's also more nastiness like Porter beating the crap out of the wife (Deborah Kara Unger) who pumped bullets into his back, a dog that is presumably killed and just a meaner overall feel. Running just about 90 minutes, stuff does feel like it's missing; in both PAYBACKs John Glover gets high billing for very little screen time and at one point William Devane says, "I don't want anymore unpleasantness at the hotel," but he's not referring to anything we got to see. And, truth be told, the relatively short climax does feel a little like it's building to a bigger climax that never quite comes. Maybe this has to do with the late introductions of Fairfax (James Coburn, unbilled in both versions) and the unseen Bronson, head of the syndicate (apparently the voice of Angie Dickinson in the early cut, but Sally Kellerman in this version). The unseen boss is what really allowed Gibson to fashion a new ending for the movie with the all-new Kris Kristofferson character instead of the brief shootout that climaxes this version. Ironically, the shot of Gibson in the "Get Ready to Root for the Bad Guy" poster comes from the original ending.

The disc contains several featurettes where we hear from Gibson, Helgeland and others. Everyone seems very reasonable about what went down. Helgeland felt the only issues to deal with concerned the ending;Gibson seems to prefer the release cut, saying that "you have to tailor the film to fit the audience," but pronounces the director's cut as "valid."

In removing the coldness from what was there, the star tampered with what was a pretty damn good performance by himself, but he did make it more of a "Mel Gibson film." Maybe I've had enough of drawn out action climaxes, explosions and lengthy running times, but I prefer Helgeland's version. Making it a seventies movie, which at heart is what he wanted to do, makes it feel more like it has an actual point. More than POINT BLANK it now seems slightly reminiscent of John Flynn's THE OUTFIT(another Parker novel, starring Robert Duvall as Earl Macklin) and Michael Ritchie's PRIME CUT(another Lee Marvin vehicle). The music score has been changed also, which is a good thing. The original score is a decent 70s pastiche but it apes David Shire's score to THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (a personal favorite) a litle too much for my taste. The new score, by music editor Scott Stambler, retains the 70s feel, but also feels more like its own thing and only helps the film in sustaining its own unique mood.

Particularly good in the cast, even if some of it is footage we've seen before, are Deborah Kara Unger, Bill Duke, Devane, Coburn, an early appearance by SIX FEET UNDER's Freddy Rodriguez and the voice-only appearance of Kellerman, who is note-perfect in her two brief scenes.

PAYBACK is not a great movie in any version and was never going to be. And it certainly isn't POINT BLANK. But this new version is a chance to see how it was intended by a writer who wanted to simply make the kind of down-and-dirty crime thriller that doesn't get made anymore. And as he found out, he wasn't going to get to make it either.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i never saw this well thought out review. glad you mentioned (and liked) my score

scott stambler