Mel Gibson Knows Kuh-Razee

Parker, the amoral and ultra-efficient criminal featured in 24 novels by Donald Westlake, has been kicked around Hollywood almost as much as he’s been kicked around in his books.  He was luckiest in his earliest and latest adaptations; Point Blank, the 1967 film that adapted Parker’s debut in The Hunter, was only the second and still the best on-screen version of the character, with a grim-faced portrayal by Lee Marvin and directed with a stark, chilly rhythm by John Boorman.  And recently, just before Westlake kicked the bucket, comics artist Darwyn Cooke completed the first of what would become an ongoing series of adaptations of the Parker novels, and they, too, nicely capture the cool noir grace notes of the source material.

In between, though, there were an awful lot of mediocrities cranked out of Hollywood purporting to bring us the stories of the determined, if unlucky, heist man.  Due to one of those innumerable legal niceties that keep Los Angeles entertainment lawyers in sports cars, the character had to be given a different name on screen, and in Brian Helgeland’s 1999 adaptation of The Hunter entitled Payback, Mel Gibson portrays him as “Porter”.  The plot follows a somewhat faithful read of the novel, with all the familiar names in place and a similar set-up, but the devil is in the details, and as with most second-rate thrillers adapted from good books, this one gets them mostly wrong.

The film has a promising start, with Parker undergoing back-alley surgery following a near-fatal shooting and slowly crawling his way back out of the gutter, gaining just enough respectability to begin his campaign of revenge after his wife and his partner in a heist betray him and leave him for dead.  This entire sequence has a tense energy we never really see again, and it’s also the only time Chris Boardman and Moe Jaffe’s score sounds like a legit piece of noir film music and not something that they couldn’t find a use for in the latest Law & Order:  SVU.  (It’s also a bit hard to tell when, exactly, the film is meant to take place; most cues, from the automobiles to the clothes to the by-the-numbers soundtrack, suggest a setting contemporary to Payback‘s 1999 release date, but no one has a computer, credit card technology seems stuck in the 1970s, and there are no cell phones — indeed, one major plot point at the end of the movie involves a car phone and an indoor land line, and both of them are rotary dials!)

Payback has tonal problems all over the place.  Helgeland, in the first place, doesn’t seem to know whether the thing is supposed to be a dark revenge thriller or an Elmore Leonard-esque mob comedy, populated with colorful characters with a sinister side; Gibson plays the scenes where he’s being beaten and tortured like he’s auditioning for an open slot with the Three Stooges, and James Coburn seems to have gotten hold of a script with “wacky” written extensively in the notes.  Other times, though, the film seems to be going for a straightforward adaptation of the source, and this uncertainty about how it wants us to react at any given moment really starts to hobble the film, especially when it gets really violent.

There isn’t much sense to be made of the plot, either.  The Hunter relies for its powerful effect on a straight-faced identification with the notion that Parker is a cold-blooded enough son of a bitch to lay waste to everything in his path just to get the (stolen) money that is owed him, and Boorman correctly figured that could only be accomplished by making him an existential cypher, a serpent who’d rather gorge himself on something that will choke him than go hungry.  Helgeland’s Porter, on the other hand, is so flippant and short, with a collection of sympathies and tics that stand in for a forceful personality, that his behavior in pursuit of $70,000 just seems ridiculous.  A subplot involving the Tong serves only as an excuse for the movie’s silliest action scene, a flashback early on fills in some story details but is as awkwardly wedged into the overall structure as the clumsy voice-overs, and another subplot with a pair of crooked cops not only wastes two decent character actors in Bill Duke and Jack Conley, but is also resolved so easily, and so stupidly, that it shouldn’t have been in the movie at all.  None of this accomplishes anything but pull focus away from Porter’s  singularity of purpose, and makes the whole movie seem scattered.

Wasting Duke and Conley seems like an even greater crime when you consider that good acting is at a premium in Payback.  Gibson, for all his hamming it up, isn’t bad enough to be a distraction, but almost the entire remainder of the cast is a disaster.  Kris Kristofferson appears late in the film to effectively balance out Coburn’s overbaked goofiness, but Gregg Henry is ridiculously over the top as Gibson’s ex-partner; Jon Glover isn’t on screen long enough to make any difference; William Devane is in full-blown TV movie mode; and Lucy Liu, playing a criminal dominatrix, delivers the most offensive yellowface this side of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Maria Bello plays the female lead/romantic interest, but she and Gibson have a charisma rating in the negative teens; they both seem bored with the whole arrangement and eager to move on to the next scene.  I can’t blame them.

The internet informs me that an alternate “director’s cut” of Payback exists, consisting of Helgeland’s ideal version of the film, which went unreleased due to him being fired late in the production and replaced with Paul Abascal.  Reading the summary, it sounds like a mild improvement, but I’m guessing it’s more mild than improvement.  This wasn’t really a movie that seemed to be suffering because of reshoots or a betrayal of the director’s vision; it just seemed like kind of a third-rate movie.  Nothing in Helgeland’s filmography suggests that he’s capable of genius, so I doubt a more improved version of Payback would be all that worthwhile, and replacing Kris Kristofferson, who delivers one of the only passable performances on screen with Sally Kellerman would be a mistake on the level of, well, replacing anyone with Sally Kellerman.

Seen as homework for the upcoming Parker, with Jason Statham as the title character, Payback may shine by comparison.  Parker is directed by the appropriately named Taylor Hackford, a perpetual underachiever who will be hugely overpraised when he dies because he directed a lot of moneymaking films in the ’80s and ’90s; and while it’s got a much better cast (including Michael Chiklis, Clifton Collins Jr., Wendell Pierce, and Jennifer Lopez’s hiney), the trailers promise maximum stupidity as well as a profound misunderstanding of who Parker is and what he does.  Taken on its own, it seems like a curious attempt to bridge the action hero tropes of the ’80s and ’90s with the coming nihilistic revenge pictures of the 2010s — and a somewhat depressing reminder that we had this figured out as long ago as 1967.

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