Note: For the purposes of this post, we'll be discussing the 1999 theatrical cut of Payback, not the "Straight Up" director's cut that arrived in 2006. If you're curious: I prefer the original. Remain calm.
While rewatching Brian Helgeland's Payback recently, I kept coming back around to the same thought: "There's no way this movie would get made nowadays." There's the obvious reason why not, of course (the generally agreed-upon shunning of Mel Gibson from Hollywood), but there's more to it than that. For one thing, Payback is an aggressively dark movie, way too unpleasant in tone and content to ever be embraced by casual audiences. In 1999, the star power of Mel Gibson probably assuaged any fears Paramount might have had in that regard, but these days, Payback could only be considered a four-quadrant picture if one were hoping for overlap between sadomasochists, smokers, sociopaths and Kris Kristofferson fans*.
The film is all inky blacks and plumes of cigarette smoke, moments of brutal violence (some of it directed at women)(in fact, a good bit of it directed at women) punctuating double-crosses and ugly reveals. This is the kind of movie where, upon discovering that his wife has died from a heroin overdose, Mel Gibson's Porter** pins his wedding ring to the wall with the grungy syringe that just killed her. This is the kind of movie where Porter's ostensible best friend shoots him, then stubs a cigarette out in his congealing blood as he lays dying. This is the kind of movie where you might see Lucy Liu in full-on bondage gear, beating a dude mercilessly (his tongue in a mousetrap) while casually talking on the phone. Whatever version of Payback might get bankrolled to the tune of ~$100m today, it almost certainly wouldn't look like this.
All of which, of course, is why so many of us love Payback. For a number of reasons, it's a relic of a different time, but mostly it's just a nasty little movie that tells its twisty story very well. It does so with confidence (trusting that the audience will root for Porter even if his behavior is often as deplorable as anyone else's in the film), with style (the film's got a great soundtrack, a moody score, and was beautifully shot by Ericson Core, who'd go on to lens the first Fast And The Furious), and with a surprising amount of humor. It's there, it's just as jet-black as everything else in the film.
The humor is, in fact, one of the film's most memorable elements. There's a great running gag about the amount of money Porter's trying to get back from the dude who stole it from him (everyone thinks it's $130k, but it's actually a far more reasonable $70k...or less reasonable, depending on who you ask), and the film's opening montage - wherein Porter gets stitched back together after being shot to pieces, steals a random's citizen's identity, and enjoys a night out on the town using his wallet - is actually kind of hilarious. The film would probably be a lot less tolerable were it not for the humor Helgeland injected the script with, and I'm sure he knew that going in. If you're gonna make your lead character an asshole, well, he better be a loveable asshole.
The film's also got balls: Payback's few moments of sweetness are immediately undercut by something bitter. Yes, Porter returns to his call-girl lady-friend's apartment just in time to save her from a brutal assault by the loathsome Val Resnick (a perfectly sleazy Gregg Henry***), but he shrugs off his miraculously-timed arrival, muttering, "Forgot my cigarettes". Yes, Porter and Rosie (the aforementioned call-girl lady-friend) ultimately beat the bad guys and get Porter's cash back, but the film's final line makes sure we know they haven't changed too much: "We made a deal: if she'd stop hookin', I'd stop shooting people. Maybe we were aiming high."
Appreciating Mel Gibson's role in all this a trickier matter altogether, given the man's behavior over the past decade or so. I like to think of myself as the sort of consumer that can separate an entertainer's personal politics from the art they've created, but Mel Gibson really puts that sort of thinking to the test. This is a man whose presence in a film used to herald good times. He was an unfailingly reliable addition to any film, as believable and eminently watchable as "Mad" Max Rockatansky as he was William Wallace, Martin Riggs, or M. Night Shyamalan's lapsed preacher, Graham Hess (yeah, I love Signs, say something). On the surface, those movies and those characters are the same as they were when The Road Warrior, Braveheart, and Lethal Weapon hit theaters...but they're also fundamentally changed, because by now we've all heard Gibson tell his wife "I hope you get raped by a pack of niggers." That's the sort of vileness that's extremely difficult to set aside when it comes to appreciating a performer. Whether or not you're able to do that is a matter of personal choice (I'm sure we'll hear more about this in the comments).
From my perspective, it's still possible to enjoy Payback (or any other great film that Gibson ever made, for that matter). There's an element missing to the enjoyment, obviously - I can't fully embrace Gibson's presence onscreen like I could fifteen years ago - but the rest of the film isn't a wash because of it. It's the same sort of willful disassociation that allows me to love Jay-Z's music even though I know he peddled cocaine to addicts in his 20's, or to be a fan of Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion even though I know what an utter shitbag Roman Polanski was. I'm not sure it's anything to be proud of, or even if it's justifiable, I just know it's the truth: I find I can still enjoy the art (even if it's at a remove, or in a muted way) without endorsing the actions of the artist.
I'd put Payback up there with some of Gibson's all-time greatest films, and it'll be interesting to see (one day, when Gibson's dead and gone, and all that's left of him are the movies) whether or not his genuinely classic stuff retains the prestige that it used to have. It's already been tarnished, to be sure, but who knows what the next however-many-years hold for Mel Gibson, and our perception of him? The critical junction, where Gibson may have been able to put his career back on track and make amends for the things he's said and done, seems to have passed. But might an honest-to-god hit put him back in the public's good graces? Has the damage been so severe as to eliminate The Road Warrior from anyone's "Greatest Movies Ever" list? Should we even be distinguishing between his "classic" films and the lesser ones when it comes to "how we should feel about Mel Gibson"? That feels all wrong, doesn't it?
I don't know, man. It's impossible to talk about Payback without talking about Mel Gibson, but in the end, I still had a great time revisiting Helgeland's film. It's still the hard-boiled suckerpunch it always was, it's just that the dingy little glow surrounding the film has gotten a whole lot dingier (and not in a pleasant way). After the past ten years, we might have to offer up our praise with some serious qualifications, but even then I can't help but love Payback.
* = Not surprisingly, there is a lot of overlap between these quadrants.
** = Not Parker, as was the case in the 40+ hard-boiled crime thrillers Richard Stark wrote around the character between 1962 and Stark/Donald Westlake's death in 2008. *** = It is a fact that any film can be immediately improved with the addition of Gregg Henry, no matter how small or large the part (see also: Miguel Ferrer, Tom Waits)